Some animals have the capacity to produce different alarm calls for terrestrial and aerial predators. However, it is not clear what cognitive processes are involved in generating these calls. One possibility is the position of the predator: Anything on the ground receives a terrestrial predator call, and anything in the air receives an aerial predator call. Another possibility is that animals are able to recognize the physical features of predators and incorporate those into their calls. As a way of elucidating which of these mechanisms plays a primary role in generating the structure of different calls, we performed two field experiments with Gunnison’s prairie dogs. First, we presented the prairie dogs with a circle, a triangle, and a square, each moving across the colony at the same height and speed. Second, we presented the prairie dogs with two squares of differing sizes. DFA statistics showed that 82.6 percent of calls for the circle and 79.2 percent of the calls for the triangle were correctly classified, and 73.3 percent of the calls for the square were classified as either square or circle. Also, 100 percent of the calls for the larger square and 90 percent of the calls for the smaller square were correctly classified. Because both squares and circles are features of terrestrial predators and triangles are features of aerial predators, our results suggest that prairie dogs might have a cognitive mechanism that labels the abstract shape and size of different predators, rather than the position of the predator.
Slobodchikoff, C. N., Briggs, W. R., Dennis, P. A., & Hodge, A. M. C. (2012). Size and shape information serve as labels in the alarm calls of Gunnison's prairie dogs Cynomys gunnisoni. Curr. Zool, 58(5), 741-748.