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.
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 Slobodchikoff, a 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.

By Megan Garber
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