Rascally rodents

Our Stand: Prairie dogs have a language all their own
(and maybe names for us)

The Arizona Republic, Editorial  --  Dec. 13, 2004  -- Page B6

[This editorial refers to the December 4 article: Scientist: Prairie dogs 'talk' in The Arizona Republic, which was based on a February news article in New Mexico. Also see "Prairie Dog Communication", a collection of his articles.]

The word "tourist" in any language has to conjure images of loud shorts and cameras. In these parts, you can often add a spanking new cowboy hat to the picture.

But how do you say "tourist" in prairie dog?

This is not idle curiosity.

A Northern Arizona University biology professor who studies prairie dog language says the critters not only have specific words for the things they encounter in their world, they can also come up with terms for things never before seen.

That phrase, "things never before seen" sure covers tourists -- and don't get huffy, snowbirds; you know we love you, and your Winnebagos, too.

Besides, "zonie" is Californian for a visiting Arizonan, and it's no compliment. We Arizonans resemble any perceived disrespectful remark about those who look unusual while burning vacation time.

But back to the dogs.

NAU Professor Con Slobodchikoff has spent two decades studying prairie dog calls, according to the Associated Press.

In that time, he has found both rhyme and reason in their chatter. They have specific, identifiable calls for different predators, as well as for elk, deer, antelope and cows.

When something new is introduced into their environment, they develop a "word" to describe it, and they all subsequently use that word in the same way.

It's not like a politician inventing new ways to make the same old promises, but Slobodchikoff says it has elements of real language.

So animals really are talking to each other.

Which brings us to the question on everybody's mind when a foreign language comes into play: What are they saying about me?

Think about that the next time you aim your camera at a captive colony of prairie dogs.

While you're commenting on how pudgy and cute they are, they might be saying exactly the same thing.

No telling how they rate the hat.
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