• Dr. Timothy Smith

That Prairie Dog Said What?

Prairie Dogs

Photo Source: Pexels

Great experiments combined with technology, including artificial intelligence, recently opened the door to better understanding what animals say to each other when they vocally communicate. In other words, animal language appears much more complicated than expected when merely listening to their chirps, cries, and calls. Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, an emeritus professor from the Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University, devoted his career to understanding animal communication. He has written a number of research articles and books on animal communication including Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals and Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society. He worked over thirty years studying communication among Gunnison’s prairie dogs. Gunnison’s prairie dog, a relative of North American ground squirrel, lives in social colonies of several hundred members in underground burrows for protection from predators. They vocally communicate with a variety of barking sounds. Slobodchikoff used recording devices and video to capture the communications and behavior of the prairie dogs during the approach of predators toward the colony. He recorded the sounds made by the prairie dogs when a coyote, hawk, or snake approached the colony and noted how the prairie dogs would run or hide. He studied the different sounds using mathematical techniques to compare the different barks and found different barks for different predators. Later using a loud speaker, he could play back the warning sounds to the colony, and they would react in the same way—running or hiding depending on the type of predator the bark indicated. He unlocked for the first time the language of the prairie dog. In a recent paper titled “Prairie dog alarm calls encode labels about predator colors,” he determined that prairie dog barks contain much more information than what type of predator is coming. He conducted an experiment where he would record the barks made by the prairie dogs when a person would walk towards the colony wearing different colored shirts. He not only found the prairie dogs know the difference between people and other animals, but they also communicate the size and color of the person in their barks. Remarkably, the barks last only fraction of a second but contain full sentences, not just single words.

Another group of researchers led by Yossi Yovel in the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University used artificial intelligence to learn what Egyptian fruit bats say to each other when they gather in colonies. In an article published in Scientific Reports titled “Everyday bat vocalizations contain information about emitter, addressee, context, and behavior,” Yovel and his co-authors found that bats not only say who is speaking and what the message is about, but to whom it is addressed. Using artificial intelligence and 15,000 bat voice-recordings to learn the vocal patterns of the bats, the researchers trained a computer to recognize the different sounds and associated behaviors such as squabbling over food or sleeping spots. The sounds made by bats challenge the human ear due to the speed of their communication, but the computer can keep up and make sense of the communication. The algorithm learned to identify which bat made which sound, what she had to say and even predict the outcome of the quarrel. Raman Skibba comments on Yovel’s work in Nature News, "The team found that the animals made slightly different sounds when communicating with different individuals. This was especially true when a bat addressed another of the opposite sex — perhaps similarly, the authors say, to when humans use different tones of voice for different listeners.” Male bats take a different tone with females than they do with other males.

Scientific research with the aid of artificial intelligence permits unprecedented analysis of the sounds animals use to communicate with each other. Con Slobodchikoff remarkably decoded the barking of prairie dogs to find out they convey complex information in their short barks including the size, color, and type of predator approaching their colony. They even distinguish between coyotes and domestic dogs. Research into bat vocal communication with the help of artificial intelligence now shows that bats not only announce what they want but call out the other bat by name. Computers may one day help us to understand better what animals say to each other and even to us. Slobodchikoff notes in a video on his website that prairie dogs also have different chatter that they share amongst themselves with no apparent behavior changes. (conslobodchikoff.com) Without a distinct behavior, we do not know what they are saying to each other, but knowing now that they speak in sentences, it cannot be just noise. Perhaps they gossip, tell stories, or just chew the fat.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.