Animal Behaviorist: We'll Soon Have Devices That Let Us Talk With Our Pets

We're fast approaching the point, says Con Slobodchikoff, when computers will help to mediate our communications with animals.
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There's so much these guys want to tell you. (Shutterstock/Jaren Jai Wicklund)

We all try to talk with animals, but very few of us do so professionally. 

And even fewer are trying to build devices that could allow us to communicate with our pets and farm animals. 

Meet one person who is trying to do just that: Con Slobodchikoffa professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University, and a modern-day Dr. Doolittle. Slobodchikoff is an animal behaviorist and researcher who has devoted his career -- 30 years of it, at any rate -- to the decoding of animal communications. And though Slobodchikoff has studied those signals across different species, he has focused his original research on the communications of the prairie dog. The creatures, he says, talk to each other using "the most sophisticated animal language that has been decoded." The animals have word-like phonemes, combining those into sentence-like calls. They have social chatter. They can distinguish between types of predators that are nearby -- dogs, coyotes, humans -- and seem to have developed warnings that specify the predators' species and size and color. 

To arrive at those findings, Slobodchikoff relied on statistical analyses of the alarm calls produced by one particular species, the Gunnison's prairie dog. He cross-referenced the acoustic qualities of the animals' cries with the circumstances in which they were uttered, using the calls' natural contexts as clues to their meanings. 

For a detailed (and totally delightful) guide to the prairie dogs' different alarm calls, see this Radiolab interactive. Meanwhile, the video below offers a summary of Slobodchikoff's research and findings.     

To learn more, I spoke with Slobodchikoff about his previous research, his upcoming investigations, and what he thinks the future will hold when it comes to animal-human communications. We also discussed, obviously, jump-yips

My conversation with him, lightly edited, is below.

Lots of animals have communications mechanisms. Whales have sonar; apes have signs; birds have chirps; bees have odor plumes ... and on and on. So why study prairie dogs, in particular? What do they offer that other animals don't?

Slobodchikoff: I personally think that whales and dolphins and monkeys are going to be shown to have very sophisticated languages. But we still need to design some of the experiments that will get at that. That's a problem with studying things like whale and dolphin calls, because they occur below the ocean surface where we can't really see what's going on. So we can hear their vocalizations, but we aren't really sure what their context is. And you need to have the context in order to crack the code -- it's the context that allows you to decipher the meaning of the message.

As for prairie dog language, I stumbled into that work by accident. I started looking at the social system of prairie dogs -- and prairie dogs have a very complex social system. They have alarm calls, which they give when they see a predator. And the alarm calls turned out to be a Rosetta stone for me, in the sense that I could actually decode what information was contained within the calls.

And the prairie dogs were, conveniently, on the surface.

Slobodchikoff: Yes -- there they were, on the surface. And fortunately, they lived in colonies, and the colonies never moved, so I could come back to the same colony, day after day, and note who all the individuals are, and be able to do field experiments -- which a lot of people who work even with monkeys can't do very easily, because the monkeys move from place to place. You come back the next day, and they're not there -- and who knows where they are.

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Sound-frequency analysis of praire dog alarm calls, differentiated according to predator (Con Slobodchikoff)

So what were the mechanics of those studies? What was your sample size? How did you actually keep track of the individuals you were observing?

Slobodchikoff: In the particular prairie dog town that we studied, there were about 100 individuals -- so we had a large sample size. And we kept track of the individuals by trapping them in live traps. We "paid" them with sunflower seeds, which they really love to eat. (They would compete with each other, actually, to jump into our traps and eat the sunflower seeds. I saw moms push their babies out of the way so that mom could jump into the trap and get the sunflower seeds herself.)

And then we marked them with fur dye, identifying all the individual animals. So when we observed them from a distance, we could tell, "Oh, this is animal A4," or M7, or something. And we knew something about their basic history, and so on.

And the colonies are actually called towns?

Slobodchikoff: They're actually called towns.

I'm interested in this idea of phonemes and sentences playing out with prairie dogs -- discrete sounds the animals seem to combine to make meaning. Do you have a sense of the potential iterations that could exist there, given what we know so far about the semantic value of those units? How many possible "sentences" might there be?

Slobodchikoff: You know, I really don't have a sense of that, because each experiment we do brings new surprises. For example, the last experiment that we did was showing the prairie dogs abstract shapes, like circles and triangles. And I absolutely had no idea that they would be able to come up with words for "triangles" versus "circles." It's just amazing to me: the more we study them, the more sophisticated the system becomes. So I think that we're just plumbing the very surface of things, and we'll find that their language is far more sophisticated than even we know right now, today.

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Various phonemes prairie dogs might use to alarm each other when a domestic dog is in the area -- broken down by species, size, shape, and color (Con Slobodchikoff)

Plus, the prairie dogs have all of those social chatters, which we can't crack yet because we don't have a context for them. One animal just goes, "chatter-chatter-chitter-chatter," and another animal in the colony goes, "chatter-chatter-chitter-chitter." We can show that the chatters and the chitters differ, but what it means, we don't have any clue. It could be just, "chatter-chatter-chitter," or it could be, "Do you know where Sam was last night?"

And the jump-yip! I'd love to know more about what the jump-yip actually means -- if it means anything.

Slobodchikoff: Yes, and we don't know. But the jump-yip is really interesting because it's used in so many different contexts. And one of the things that people have not looked at is whether the jump-yip's acoustic properties differ from one context to another. Because it sort of sounds the same to us, but then the alarm chirp that I started working with sounded the same, at first, too, for coyotes and for dogs and for humans. Now, I can take anybody out and I can point out in about half a day what the differences are. And if they have any sort of musical ability, they can say, "Oh, yes, that's a coyote," or "Yes, that's a dog," and so on.

But nobody has really done that stuff with the jump-yips. And some of the time, the prairie dogs just do the jump-yip when it looks like there's no other context except them feeling good.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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