It’s not easy to upstage an American buffalo but the prairie dogs do their best. Certainly they add a touch of comic relief to the eternal dignity and the eternal tragedy of the buffalo. I met them, inevitably, on my trip to Badlands National Park a few weeks ago, when I was researching a piece for Intelligent Life magazine.
The first thing to understand is that prairie dogs aren’t dogs. They’re a kind of ground squirrel and they live in colonies – sometime called towns – out in the open. That gives them perpetual access to food, but it always gives every predator in the ecosystem perpetual access to them.
Their response to this problem is communication. They have developed these skills to an extraordinary level: watching out for each other and uttering highly specific warnings when danger approaches.
Their most characteristic manoeuvre is to stand upright and fling both front legs high in the air, as if they were performing a Mexican wave, and then squeak. They often do this with such enthusiasm that they fall over onto their fat bottoms.
All that had me intrigued, but when I followed up, I found that prairie dogs take us into the dangerous country that lies between us humans and all other species: the Confusion Zone, the Layer of Perplexity.
I’ve been reading Chasing Doctor Dolittle by Con Slobodchikoff, which I’d acquired a couple of years ago on a trip
to New York for the tennis. It was an eye-opener, and not just about ground squirrels.
Prairie dogs are so good at communication that they can tell each other about the approach of a human, the identity of that human (if known to them), and even what colour tee-shirt that human is wearing. They can also tell each other whether or not their visitor is scattering a gift of food that day.
Philosophers tie themselves into knots on the question of when is a language not a language. Always the answer is skewed so that language miraculously turns out to be something that only humans possess. But then we learn a good deal more about, say, prairie dogs and the philosophers have to go foraging for another definition… while the prairie dogs just continue their conversation.
As always, the real truth is that the difference between humans and our fellow-animals is never one of kind. It’s always one of degree. Prairie dogs may not be out there discussing the meaning of Ulysses, but they are purposefully exchanging meaningful information, and if they didn’t they’d be dead, from a prairie hawk or from a coyote.
And if that’s not language then I’m James Joyce.