Scientists Say Prairie Dogs Use Jump-Yips to Test Alertness of Neighbors

Posted on January 17, 2014

Black-tailed prairie dogs are known for their contagious jump-yip displays. University of Manitoba biologists compare them to people doing the wave at sporting events. During a jump-yip display, a prairie dog quickly stands up, lifts its head and forelimbs and makes a "wee-oo" sound. The display is often quickly replicated by nearby prairie dogs.

Professor James Hare and colleagues at the University of Manitoba say the jump-yips are a way for prairie dogs to test the alertness of their neighbors. A prairie dog can use the jump-yip for clues as to how good a neighbor may be in alerting them to incoming danger. A neighbor that responds with a quick jump-yip is more likely to be an alert neighbor and a reliable source of potential threats. Professor Hare says the display was previously thought to be an "all clear" signal.

Hare says, "This fits beautifully with work on primates, including humans, which suggests that contagious displays - like yawning - provide a window into the mind of others, suggesting of course, that species probing the minds of others are aware that they are distinct from those individuals. That is to say, they are consciously aware. Prairie dogs foraged less when individuals were less responsive to their jump-yip display, suggesting they use jump-yips to actively probe the awareness of their neighbours."

Here is a close-up video of a single jump-yip and a video of a group of prairie dogs emitting contagious jump-yips.

The research was published here in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B.

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