Video: How to understand what prairie dogs are saying -- and if they think you're fat

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"Short fat guy! Green shirt!"
This week's cover story, "The Dogs of War," examines increased efforts to eradicate prairie dogs around the metro Denver area -- particularly in Stapleton, where developers and park managers have found it easier to poison the pesky rodents than relocate them. That's stirred up outrage from advocacy groups and parents.

It also raises questions about what happens to other wildlife when a keystone species is exterminated to protect well-groomed open space and "natural" areas that aren't really natural.

In this emotion-charged battle, prairie dogs have some image problems to overcome. They're often portrayed as plague-infested vermin, even though there hasn't been a case of plague in a Denver colony in thirty years. And while some people find them cute, they're not nearly as appealing as the so-called charismatic megafauna, such as wolves or deer.

But their admirers say prairie dogs are a lot more impressive than most people realize. In addition to being a valuable food source for foxes, coyotes, hawks, eagles and other predators, they're highly organized socially and playful -- so much so that you wonder why there hasn't been a long-running Animal Planet series about their burrow dramas similar to Meerkat Manor.

They also have one of the most sophisticated languages to be found anywhere in the animal kingdom. Analysis of recordings indicate that prairie dogs have distinct yips and barks to alert others of different type of threats invading the colony. They can distinguish between a coyote and a domestic dog, between a fat human and a thin one -- and even, to some extent, the color of clothing that human is wearing. The accents show geographical deviation, and the calls are different for different species of prairie dogs. A white-tailed version wouldn't understand what a black-tailed one was yammering about any more than your average American would understand a Brazilian policeman.

Then there's the whole business of the jump-yip. But better to let Con Slobodchikoff, one of the leading researchers on prairie dog communication, explain that part to you. Here's a video about his work:

More from our News archive circa 2011: "Prairie dogs: Top 5 relocation destinations for critters living on future path of RTD's DIA train."

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4 comments
Julie Korhonen Pidhayny
Julie Korhonen Pidhayny

they have dif language for man with gun --man no gun --thin man-- fat man-- man with yellow shirt or green shirt....i think this is pretty amazing. But if a prairie dog calls ME fat I will blow its head off.

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg topcommenter

Another excellent piece from WW's best writer .

Not busiest, just best .....

Michael Bauer
Michael Bauer

Would they just be poisoning them if it was a herd of deer in the way. I don't think so.

Aaron Elam
Aaron Elam

Not going to name the city, but unfortunately, relocation means they're going to be food.

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