Journal of Ethology

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 167–174 | Cite as

Alarm call modification by prairie dogs in the presence of juveniles

  • Grete E. Wilson-HenjumEmail author
  • Jacob R. Job
  • Megan F. McKenna
  • Graeme Shannon
  • George Wittemyer


While several drivers of wildlife alarm calls have been identified, recent work on the impact of the audience on the plasticity of alarm calling indicates that intraspecific communication can drive this behavior. We build on this literature by assessing changes in call characteristics in black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) in the presence of recently emerged juveniles. Alarm calls were elicited by approaching individuals, and then recorded using a shotgun microphone. Presence and distance of pups were noted prior to recording. Alarm calls were analyzed for changes in spectral and temporal characteristics relative to those of adults that were not in the immediate presence of pups. Our analyses indicated that adult prairie dogs lowered the central concentration of energy in their alarm calls when calling in the presence of pups. This may show that prairie dogs are conscious of the type of alarm call produced based on the behavioral context of calling and potentially the audience receiving the message. Furthermore, this may support the hypothesis that alarm calling is intended to reach conspecifics, rather than to send a message to the predator itself.


Cynomys ludovicianus Vocal plasticity Signal receiver Audience affect Acoustic ecology Black-tailed prairie dog Altruism Call characteristics 



This study was funded without any grants. The recording equipment was borrowed from the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This research was approved according to Colorado State University Animal Care and Use Committee protocol 13-4112A. All the authors consent to the publication of this paper.

Supplementary material

10164_2018_582_MOESM1_ESM.docx (34 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 34 kb)


  1. Au W (1993) The sonar of dolphins. Springer, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bowman R (1979) Adaptive morphology of song dialects in Darwin’s finches. J Ornithol 120:353–389CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Carlile S, Pettigrew A (1987) Directional properties of the auditory periphery in the guinea pig. Hear Res 31:111–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Carlile S, Delaney S, Corderoy A (1999) The localisation of spectrally restricted sounds by human listeners. Hear Res 128:175–189CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dantzker M, Deane G, Bradbury J (1999) Directional acoustic radiation in the strut display of male sage grouse Centrocercus urophasianus. J Exp Biol 202:2893–2909Google Scholar
  6. Foote A, Osborne R, Hoelzel A (2004) Environment: whale-call response to masking boat noise. Nature 428:910CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Fox J, Weisberg S (2011) An {R} companion to applied regression, second edition. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA. Accessed June 2017
  8. Frederiksen J, Slobodchikoff C (2007) Referential specificity in the alarm calls of the black-tailed prairie dog. Ethol Ecol Evol 19:87–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Griesser M, Ekman J (2004) Nepotistic alarm calling in the Siberian jay, Perisoreus infaustus. Anim Behav 67:933–939CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hamilton W (1964) The genetical evolution of social behavior. I and II. J Theor Biol 7:1–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hoogland J (1981) The evolution of coloniality in white-tailed prairie dogs and black-tailed prairie dogs (Sciuridae: Cynomys leucurus and C. ludovicianus). Ecol Soc Am 62:252–272Google Scholar
  12. Hoogland J (1983) Nepotism and alarm calling in the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus). Anim Behav 31:472–479CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hoogland J (1995) The Black-tailed Prairie Dog: social life of a burrowing mammal. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  14. Hotchkin C, Parks S (2013) The Lombard effect and other noise-induced vocal modifications: insight from mammalian communication systems. Biol Rev 88:809–824CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Jenkins P (1978) Cultural transmission of song patterns and dialect development in a free-living bird population. Anim Behav 26:50–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. King J (1955) Social behavior, social organization, and population dynamics in a black-tailed prairie dog town in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Univ Michigan Contrib Lab Vert Biol 67:1–123Google Scholar
  17. Krams I, Krama T, Igaune K (2006) Alarm calls of wintering great tits Parus major: warning of mate, reciprocal altruism or a message to the predator? J Avian Biol 37:131–136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Leger D, Owings D (1978) Responses to alarm calls by California ground squirrels: effects of call structure and maternal status. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 3:177–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lemon R (1975) How birds develop song dialects. Condor 77:385–406CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lombard E (1911) Le signe de l’élévation de la voix. Ann Malad Oreille Larynx 37:101–119Google Scholar
  21. Marler P (1970) A comparative approach to vocal learning: song development in white-crowned sparrows. J Comp Physiol Psychol 71:1–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Marler P, Tamura M (1962) Song “dialects” in three populations of white-crowned sparrows. Condor 64:368–377CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Marler P, Dufty A, Pickert R (1986) Vocal communication in the domestic chicken. II. Is a sender sensitive to the presence and nature of a receiver? Anim Behav 34:194–198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mazerolle M (2017) AICcmodavg: model selection and multimodel inference based on (Q)AIC(c). R package version 2.1-1. Accessed June 2017
  25. Mitani J, Hasegawa T, Gros-Louis J, Marler P, Byrne R (1992) Dialects in wild chimpanzees? Am J Primatol 27:233–243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Morris-Drake A, Bracken A, Kern J, Radford A (2017) Anthropogenic noise alters dwarf mongoose responses to heterospecific alarm calls. Environ Pollut 223:476–483CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Nottebohm F, Stokes T, Leonard C (1976) Central control of song in the canary, Serinus canaries. J Comp Neurol 165:457–486CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Perla B, Slobodchikoff C (2002) Habitat structure and alarm call dialects in Gunnison’s prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni). Behav Ecol 13:844–850CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Pollard KA, Blumstein DT (2012) Evolving communicative complexity: insights from rodents and beyond. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 367:1869–1878CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. R Core Team (2013) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. URL Accessed June 2017
  31. Ríos-Chelén A, McDonald A, Berger A, Perry A, Krakauer A, Patricelli G (2017) Do birds vocalize at higher pitches in noise, or is it a matter of measurement? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 71:29. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sheets R, Linder R, Dahlgren R (1971) Burrow systems of prairie dogs in South Dakota. J Mamm 52:451–453CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Shelley E, Blumstein D (2004) The evolution of vocal alarm communication in rodents. Behav Ecol 16:169–177CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sherman P (1985) Alarm calls of Belding’s ground squirrels to aerial predators: nepotism or self-preservation? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 17:313–323CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Smith JM (1965) The evolution of alarm calls. Am Nat 99:59–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Smith J, Smith S, Oppenheimer E, Devilla J (1977) Vocalizations of the black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicianus. Anim Behav 25:152–164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Taylor R, Balph D, Balph B (1990) The evolution of alarm calling: a cost-benefit analysis. Anim Behav 39:860–868CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Townsend S, Rasmussen M, Clutton-Brock T, Manser M (2012) Flexible alarm calling in meerkats: the role of the social environment and predation urgency. Behav Ecol 23:1360–1364CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Trivers R (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Q Rev Biol 46:35–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Waring G (1970) Sound communications of black-tailed, white-tailed, and Gunnison’s prairie dogs. Am Midl Nat 83:167–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Wheeler B (2008) Selfish or altruistic? An analysis of alarm call function in wild capuchin monkeys, Cebus apella nigritus. Anim Behav 76:1465–1475CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Whitehead H, Dillon M, Dufault S, Weilgart L, Wright J (1998) Non-geographically based population structure of South Pacific sperm whales: dialects, fluke-markings and genetics. J Anim Ecol 67:253–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Zuberbühler K (2009) Survivor signals: the biology and psychology of animal alarm calling. Adv Study Behav 40:277–322CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Japan Ethological Society and Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation BiologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.National Park Service Natural Sounds and Night Skies DivisionFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.School of Natural SciencesBangor UniversityBangorUK

Personalised recommendations