Friday, January 21, 2011

They're cute but are they clever?

Prairie dogs are little rodents that dig burrows and live together in towns. I see lots of them whenever I go to Denver and I've always thought they were very cute. However, it wasn't until I heard a radio story about them yesterday that I realized they are also very smart.

The story started out by explaining that prairie dogs vocalize a lot and warn each other when some danger is approaching. Okay, that's not surprising. Then the scientists featured in the story explained that they had analyzed the dogs' calls and learned that the dogs made different calls when they encountered a human, a dog or a coyote. That's interesting but again not very startling.

The next part of the story was what made me change my opinion. The researchers dressed several people in similar clothes except for differently colored shirts - and the prairie dogs made different calls depending on which person approached them. That's impressive!

What came next was even more impressive. The researchers went into more depth with analyzing the animals' vocalizations and they found that the latter varied according not just to the humans' shirt colors but also to the size of the people wearing the shirts. So the dogs were in effect saying things like, "Look out. Here comes a tall person with a red shirt" or "Uh-oh, here comes a short person in a green short".

So next time I see some prairie dogs, I'll certainly look at them with more respect. Meanwhile they'll be saying to each other, "Careful. Here comes a tall bald human in a purple shirt".

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