Prairie dog alarm calls encode labels about predator colors

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Some animals have the cognitive capacity to differentiate between different species of predators and generate different alarm calls in response. However, the presence of any addition information that might be encoded into alarm calls has been largely unexplored. In the present study, three similar-sized human females walked through a Gunnison’s prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni) colony wearing each of three different-colored shirts: blue, green, and yellow. We recorded the alarm calls and used discriminant function analysis to assess whether the calls for the different-colored shirts were significantly different. The results showed that the alarm calls for the blue and the yellow shirts were significantly different, but the green shirt calls were not significantly different from the calls for the yellow shirt. The colors that were detected, with corresponding encoding into alarm calls, reflect the visual perceptual abilities of the prairie dogs. This study suggests that prairie dogs are able to incorporate labels about the individual characteristics of predators into their alarm calls, and that the complexity of information contained in animal alarm calls may be greater than has been previously believed.