Video: How to understand what prairie dogs are saying -- and if they think you're fat
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.
"Short fat guy! Green shirt!"
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."