Though Natural World has often highlighted the amusing amid teaching us about flora and fauna, and it rarely takes itself terribly seriously, last night’s venture into the prairie to spy on the dogs – that aren’t dogs at all – who live there provided some downright laugh out loud moments.
The man who’s been studying them and their social interactions for years – nice work if you can get it, and who’s footing the bill?? – is Con Slobodchikoff. Yep don’t even attempt to pronounce it.
He’s spent years hanging out on prairies with a microphone, a camera and lots of fake predators that he bought on eBay. By the by, don’t you just love eBay?! Badgers, plastic coyotes – it’s got it all…
Anyway, Con has used these items to lay fake predator trails so that he can record and study the sounds the prairie dogs make upon encountering them. Long story short, he’s figured out part of their language. Or so he thinks.
We heard him rhapsodising over how certain squeaks mean predator, other squeaks mean someone’s been eaten by a predator and yet others are something along the lines of “It’s ok, the predator’s gone”.
But what if the prairie dogs are actually saying, “Look out lads, here’s that bloke again, yeah, the one with the silly toys he got on eBay. Oh ey up, he’s dragging that badger around again… bless the nutter.”
However, there is a serious side to what Con does because he recognised that their dwindling numbers – primarily down to our inhumanity by culling them as rodents – meant that the landscape and natural order of prarie grasslands was being eroded along with the dogs.
So he set out to prove that they’re not rodents or vermin but rather a highly intelligent species with a complex social order and a language to boot.
Comedian Rob Brydon narrated and brought a certain oratory sang-froid to the proceedings, which helped with the tongue-in-cheekness of the whole shebang, but by far my favourite moments were in watching the pups at play and learning to speak the language of the prairie.
Apparently, when they’re very little, their squeaks are the same and mean very little – a bit like our human babies first ventures into the gurgly world of words – but they soon learn what squeak means what, and if they’ve any sense, they shift when mummy prairie dogs squeaks “predator.”
It was a lovely programme; warm, funny and informative, and as ever with Natural World, the camerawork was breathtakingly good.