Dialects in the alarm calls of black- tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus): A case of cultural diffusion?

Patricia Dennis, Stephen M. Shuster, C. N. Slobodchikoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) produce an alarm call when a predator appears. Gunnison's prairie dogs (Cynomys gunnisoni) produce calls that vary in spectral structure according to predator type and specific characteristics unique to the individual predator, such as color and shape. These calls vary depending on geographic location and have been characterized as dialects. Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) also encode information about terrestrial predators in their alarm calls. However, nothing is known about whether there are dialects in these alarm calls, and if so, why these dialects might have arisen. We studied the alarm calls and habitat characteristics of eight different black-tailed prairie dog colonies within the Southwestern USA: Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge, NM, Vermejo Park Ranch, NM, Kiowa National Grasslands, NM, Rita Blanca National Grasslands, TX, and Comanche National Grasslands, CO. An analysis of time and frequency changes in alarm calls showed that colony sites that were located within 30 km each other did not have significant differences in alarm call structure, but sites that were more distant were significantly different from the other sites, consistent with the existence of dialects as well as with genetic models of isolation by distance. The acoustic structure of the alarm calls was not explained by differences in habitat characteristics at each site. A comparison of Squared Euclidian Distances (D2) of alarm calls versus linear distances between sites showed a significant positive correlation, implying that alarm call dialect differences increase the farther one site is from another. This relationship is consistent with a cultural diffusion model of dialects, and is similar to that observed in human dialects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104243
JournalBehavioural Processes
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Acoustic dialects
  • Alarm calls
  • Black-tailed prairie dogs
  • Cynomys ludovicianus
  • Geographic variation
  • Habitat structure
  • Human dialect patterns

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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