Prairie Dogs: Lost Language Underground

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 11, 2010 9

Prairie dogs may have the most sophisticated language of any nonhuman animal. ©Bob Leggett

Tucked away for centuries in a remote corner of northeastern India, a rare language lives. According to reports from the National Geographic Society, the language, called “Koro,” has just been “discovered” by researchers from the society’s Enduring Voices Project.

Linguists from the project happened upon Koro in 2008 while researching two other, little-known languages—Aka and Miji—which are also spoken in one small district of India. What makes Koro unique, however, is that it has gone completely unrecognized, undocumented and unrecorded until just a couple of years ago.

Koro falls into the Tibeto-Burman language group, which includes about 400 different languages, such as Tibetan and Burmese. But only about 800 tribal people speak Koro. As a language that has never been written down, it’s an “endangered tongue,” that’s for sure. It makes you wonder how many more languages—human and nonhuman—have been lost to us forever.

All five species of prairie dog belong to the squirrel family. Their other biological relatives include chipmunks, groundhogs, marmots and woodchucks.

Talk of the [prairie dog] town

Although most of us have heard about the complex songs and clicks that whales use to communicate information about their worlds, earlier this year the BBC published a story on prairie dogs that suggested they may have the most sophisticated language of any nonhuman animal.

For more than 30 years, Professor Emeritus Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University and his colleagues have been recording and studying prairie dog calls. They found that prairie dogs and their colonies are confronted by so many predators that they have had to develop different “words” to describe them all: barks, squeals and squeaks that contain different numbers of rhythmic chirps and frequency modulations. For example, a single bark may mean “there’s a badger quickly approaching the colony. Run for cover.”

Prairie dogs, of course, aren’t dogs at all but belong to the squirrel family. They live in the prairies and dry grasslands of northern Arizona, northern New Mexico and southwest Colorado. Although we once had billions of prairie dogs, their numbers have plummeted in recent decades. Ranchers view them as vermin, competing for resources with their livestock. They are often killed en masse, by inhumane means.

Prairie dog range has shrunk to less than 5 percent of its original extent due to a host of pressures, including habitat encroachment by humans. ©Bob Leggett

In her 2008 book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, author Terry Tempest Williams writes about her two-week stint with prairie dog researchers:

“In 1950, government agents proposed to get rid of prairie dogs on some parts of the Navajo Reservation in order to protect the roots of sparse desert grasses and thereby maintain some marginal grazing for sheep. The Navajo elders objected, insisting, ‘If you kill all the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for the rain.’ The amused officials assured the Navajo that there was no correlation between rain and prairie dogs and carried out their plan. The outcome was surprising only to the federal officials. The desert near Chilchinbito, Arizona, became a virtual wasteland. Without the ground-turning process of the burrowing animals, the soil became solidly packed, unable to accept rain. Hard pan. The result: fierce runoff whenever it rained. What little vegetation remained was carried away by flash floods and a legacy of erosion.”

After days of doing nothing but watching a prairie dog colony and monitoring the appearances and disappearances of individual animals above ground, Williams concludes:

“If only Utah prairie dogs would speak to us, perhaps they would ask for their status to be elevated from a threatened species to an endangered one, as an offering of greater protection with greater compassion. They would speak of struggle, asking that the future of their families be considered in the path of oil and gas leases, overgrazing and real estate development. They would tell us that when they are displaced, becoming refugees on unfamiliar land, they cease to speak, and without their voices, they cannot survive. And they would ask to be recognized as the emissaries they are from the Pleistocene Era who have much to teach us about adapting to change. Can we have a change of heart? Prairie dogs. Prayer dogs. They are sounding their alarm calls now, recognizing us as the animals we are, unconsciously walking toward the sharp-edge of extinction.”

The world is becoming less diverse. Today, 30 percent of our amphibians are threatened with extinction. ©John T. Andrews

Have we lost our tongues?

When we lose species at the rate we’re losing them on Earth, we’re costing ourselves a lot more than just biodiversity of the biological kind. We’re losing a biodiversity of languages.

Strangely enough, another recent news story reported that a “lost” language was found on the back of a 400-year-old letter. Unlike Koro, however, this one wasn’t in current use. It was an old language, rediscovered during excavations of the Magdalena de Cao Viejo church at the El Brujo Archaeological Complex in northern Peru.

Written by the hand of an unknown Spanish author and lost for four centuries, the tattered piece of paper was pulled from the ruins of the Spanish colonial church in 2008. The early 17th-century author had translated Spanish numbers and Arabic numerals into a language never seen by modern linguists.

Although it borrowed from Quechua, which is still spoken by indigenous peoples of Peru, the newly found language was clearly a unique tongue. The church had served a nearby town once inhabited by native people, probably forced to relocate there by the Spaniards for greater ease of converting them to Christianity. The church collapsed, burying the building’s papers underground and helping to preserve them.

It seems that humans and nonhuman animals have something in common when it comes to today’s rapid loss of biodiversity: we are both in peril of losing our languages underground.

Have you ever wished you could “talk to the animals”? If you could choose one animal language to speak, which one would it be?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Carlyn Kline October 16, 2010 at 10:38 am - Reply

    Although our Husky communicates quite well with us, I’d love to know the thought processes she uses. Verbal communication would be fascinating with any species, but if I had to choose, it would be either elephants or our fellow primates.

  2. John Howard Gaukel October 15, 2010 at 11:48 am - Reply

    I definitely think that individual species of animals can communicate between each other. Either by sounds “language ” or movements. The best example of this is when a predator is in their area. I also think that if the animals could communicate with us, we would get a earful, on how we have mistreated the environment and them.

  3. NineQuietLessons October 12, 2010 at 11:20 am - Reply

    I’d speak dog, so I could ask my girlfriend’s dog not to eat all my things.

  4. Kit Nordeen October 11, 2010 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    I’m not sure which animal language I would choose so I could communicate. Don’t know about the wild animals, but My dog communicates very well with me – lets me know when she is happy, sad,
    lonely, or just plain tired! I think maybe dogs can ommunicate with us
    better than we can with them, or other animals. Might have something to do with their dependencey on us and our care. They are not dumb!!

    I do enjoy the subjects you tackle an get us involved with. (poor english on my part, but you get the idea!!) Thanks for your interesting communications. Kit

  5. James Dziezynski October 11, 2010 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    I would have to log a vote for my beloved border collies as having a very complex intellect – reminds me of this:

    Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.
    ~William Shakespeare

  6. Art Hardy October 11, 2010 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Wolves. They way they communicate and work as a cohesive unit especially during hunts is truly amazing.

  7. Mary October 11, 2010 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    You always manage to come up with fascinating and educational topics – such fun. Don’t know how you do it! (I think I would enjoy understanding the language of dogs!)

  8. Travis October 11, 2010 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Simply put: Owls.

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