Northern Arizona University Professor and founder of Zoolingua, Con Slobodchikoff has spent more than 30 years studying the behavior of prairie dogs. In his studies he discovered that these rodents use “a sophisticated communication system that has all the aspects of language”. Slobodchikoff found that prairie dogs use calls for different species and are even able to describe colours and animal coats. He now believes other animals use language that’s just as complex and decipherable, and through his company, Zoolingua, he is developing a translation device for domestic animals. “So many people would dearly love to talk to their dog or cat or at least find out what they are trying to communicate”, Slobodchikoff told The Guardian. “A lot of people talk to their dogs and share their innermost secrets. With cats I’m not sure what they’d have to say. A lot of times it might just be ‘you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone’”.
Con Slobodchikoff and his team of researchers have hundreds of hours of prairie dog calls recorded with hidden microphones. Using a highly sophisticated artificial intelligence, they’ve analysed the recordings to discover the prairie dog ‘language’. They did this by looking at how different frequencies and overtones stack on top of one another then clustered different calls into different groups, each cluster having its own signature set of frequencies and tones. Having organised the calls into different clusters, the researchers were able to discover that the rodents don’t simply warn each other of danger but of the type of danger approaching, right down to whether the danger is a coyote or a domesticated dog. In fact, one experiment revealed just how specific the prairie dogs can be with their calls. Four human volunteers were asked to walk through the rodents’ habitat wearing the same trousers and shoes but different shirts: blue, yellow, green and grey. Amazingly, the researchers were not only able to group the rodents calls based on the colour of the volunteer’s shirt, but also other characteristics, such as height. “Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ or, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’”.
Con Slobodchikoff told The Guardian that he’s spent so much time with prairie dogs that he doesn’t need a computer to translate their calls. He’s confident that no later than ten years from now, a pet translation device will be on the market, allowing pets to convey varied and nuanced messages to their carers – further bridging the gap between humans and animals.
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