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Prairie dogs may do version of “the wave” as alertness test

Jan. 10, 2013
Courtesy of the Royal Society
and World Science staff

Black-tailed prai­rie dogs use a “jump­ing dis­play” that spreads through their com­mun­ity to test how alert their neigh­bors are for preda­tors, sci­en­tists have found. 

What does the test really tell a prai­rie dog? That if your pals aren’t alert, you’d bet­ter be more alert your­self, the re­search­ers pro­pose—but if they are alert, then may­be you can re­lax and look for food.

Black-tailed prairie dogs per­form a jump-yip. (Credit: Dar­lene Stack)


The prai­rie dogs live in groups that must be con­stantly vig­i­lant for preda­tors. Liv­ing in groups is use­ful, as some in­di­vid­u­als can keep a look­out while oth­ers look for food.

But that al­so means prai­rie dogs need check how alert oth­er mem­bers of the group are, ac­cord­ing to James Hare from the Uni­vers­ity of Man­i­to­ba and col­leagues, who con­ducted the stu­dy. The find­ings were pub­lished Jan. 8 in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Roy­al So­ci­e­ty B.

The jump­ing dis­play, called a “jump-yip” which is ac­com­pa­nied by a “wee-oo” sound, spreads con­ta­giously like “the wave” around a sports sta­di­um, Hare said. Neigh­bor­ing prai­rie dogs re­spond by cop­y­ing the dis­play. Sci­en­tists have spec­u­lat­ed in the past that its pur­pose could be to mark ter­ri­to­ry, give an “all clear” sig­nal or pro­mote so­cial bond­ing. Hare’s group pro­posed that it’s used to probe how alert oth­er group mem­bers are.

They stud­ied how the re­spon­sive­ness of the col­o­ny to the jump-yip af­fect­ed how vig­i­lant the in­sti­gat­ing prai­rie dog was for a min­ute af­ter the dis­play. Vig­i­lant prai­rie dogs stand up­right, and for­ag­ing ones put their heads down. The re­search­ers meas­ured how long “waves” lasted, the num­ber of crit­ters who re­sponded to the in­i­tial jump-yip, and the time it took them to re­spond.

The long­er the wave lasted and the more prai­rie dogs re­sponded, the team found, the less vig­i­lant the in­sti­gat­ing prai­rie dog was af­terwards. In­sti­ga­tors spent more time for­ag­ing and less time vig­i­lant if the oth­ers were more re­spon­sive.

The find­ings sug­gest that the prai­rie dogs could be us­ing the dis­play to gath­er in­forma­t­ion to judge the risk of re­duc­ing their own vig­i­lance in or­der to for­age, Hare and col­leagues said. “it is not sur­pris­ing that these highly so­cial an­i­mals have evolved co­or­di­nated so­cial be­hav­ior and com­men­su­rate cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties pro­mot­ing their suc­cess in the face of in­tense preda­t­ion pres­sure,” they wrote.


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Black-tailed prairie dogs use a “jumping display” that spreads through their community to test how alert their neighbors are for predators, scientists have found. What does the test really tell a prairie dog? That if your neighbors aren’t alert, you’d better be more alert yourself, the researchers propose—but if they are alert, then you can relax and look for food. The prairie dogs live in groups that must be constantly vigilant for predators. Living in groups is useful, as some individuals can keep a lookout while others look for food. But that also means prairie dogs need check how alert other members of the group are, according to James Hare from the University of Manitoba and colleagues, who conducted the study. The findings were published Jan. 8 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The jumping display, called a “jump-yip” which is accompanied by a “wee-oo” sound, spreads contagiously like “the wave” around a sports stadium, Hare said. Neighboring prairie dogs respond by copying the display. Scientists have speculated in the past that its purpose could be to mark territory, give an “all clear” signal or promote social bonding. Hare’s group proposed that it’s used to probe how alert other group members are. They studied how the responsiveness of the colony to the jump-yip affected how vigilant the instigating prairie dog was for a minute after the display. Vigilant prairie dogs stand upright, and foraging ones put their heads down. To assess how responsive the group were the researchers measured the time the “wave” lasted, the number of critters who responded to the initial jump-yip, and the time it took them to respond. Though the time taken to get a response had no significant effect on instigator’s behavior, the scientists found, the longer the wave lasted and the more prairie dogs responded, the less vigilant the instigating prairie dog was afterwards. Instigators spent more time foraging and less time vigilant if the others were more responsive. The findings suggest that the prairie dogs could be using the display to gather information to judge the risk of reducing their own vigilance in order to forage, Hare and colleagues said. “it is not surprising that these highly social animals have evolved coordinated social behavior and commensurate cognitive abilities promoting their success in the face of intense predation pressure,” they wrote.