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Prairie dog research promotes caring, conservation
Date:3/10/2009

The Northern Arizona University biology professor states the case for protecting the species in Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society, recently published by Harvard University Press.

The book, featuring the research of Slobodchikoff and co-authors Bianca Perla, a University of Washington ecologist, and Jennifer L. Verdolin, a researcher from the State University at New York in Stony Brook, shows that animals are smarter and matter more to the environment than most people think.

"I wrote the book to bring attention to the fact that prairie dogs are lapsing into extinction," Slobodchikoff says. "Since they essentially hold the food and energy web of the grassland ecosystem together, if they decline, lots of other species are going to go, too."

Although they only grow to about 15 inches high, prairie dogs are a keystone genus that 200 other plains species depend upon, including insects, hawks, burrowing owls and snakes.

Slobodchikoff also argues that the prairie dog's barks, yips and chirping sounds are really a sophisticated form of communication that contains a vocabulary of at least 100 words.

"The little yips prairie dogs make contain a lot of information," he explains. "They can describe details of predators such as their size, shape, color and how fast they are going. They also can discriminate whether an approaching animal is a coyote or a dog, and they can decipher different types of birds."

The scientist, who has been studying the species for more than 15 years, says these animals matter because they "open the door for understanding how other species communicate."

Climate control issues also are stake. Prairie dog burrows act as aquifers that prevent water from eroding land while helping to cool it.

Biology undergraduate Patricia Dennis is getting research experience working with Slobodchikoff. She is helping him take his inquiry to the next level
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Contact: Diane Rechel
diane.rechel@nau.edu
928-523-0611
Northern Arizona University
Source:Eurekalert

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