Researchers suggest prairie dog jump-yips are means to assess group alertness (w/ Video)

Jan 08, 2014 by Bob Yirka report
Credit: Darlene Stack

( —A trio of researchers from the University of Manitoba has concluded that the action known as a jump-yip, performed by some species of prairie dogs, is done more to assess group alertness than to sound the all-clear as has been previously suggested. In their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, James Hare, Kevin Campbell and Robert Senkiw describe a field study they conducted among prairie dogs and the conclusions reached as a result.

Two species of , black-tailed prairie dogs and Mexican prairie dogs, exhibit a behavior that has fascinated biologists for centuries. One will stand up, seemingly without reason, on its haunches, lean back its head and call out "wee-oo." Immediately thereafter, the other prairie dogs in the vicinity will do the same in wave fashion, similar to that seen by humans at sporting events.

Over the years, many have offered suggestions as to why the prairie dogs jump-yip, with most concluding that it was likely a way for individual members to tell others that danger has passed. In this new effort, the researchers not only debunk that theory, but offer a more promising alternative instead.

To find out what's really going on with the prairie dogs, the researchers ventured to North and South Dakota and Manitoba to watch and video record prairie dogs in their native environment (prairie dog towns) over the course of two years. What they witnessed convinced them that the jump-yip is not an all-clear sign—they do it before, during and after dangerous events. Instead, the researchers noted that sometimes jump-yipping resulted in strong wave action and sometimes the response was weaker—when it was stronger the original jump-yipper foraged strongly afterwards, seemingly without a care in the world—when the wave response was weak, however, the instigator foraged more slowly and carefully. This behavior led the researchers to conclude that the whole point of jump-yipping is for one prairie dog to assess the alertness and responsiveness of his or her associates. If others are highly alert, it means it's safer to forage—if not, more care should be taken.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
A close-up of a single individual performing a jump-yip display

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
A contagious jump-yip bout instigated by an individual prarie dog

The researchers also suggest that jump-yipping may be an evolutionary precursor to a situation where the animals come to understand that others around them are thinking and feeling individuals, which could lead to a higher level of intelligence for the species and more sophisticated social interaction.

Explore further: Multiple mates worth the risk for female prairie dogs

More information: Catch the wave: prairie dogs assess neighbours' awareness using contagious displays, Published 8 January 2014 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2153

The jump–yip display of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) is contagious, spreading through a prairie dog town as 'the wave' through a stadium. Because contagious communication in primates serves to assess conspecific social awareness, we investigated whether instigators of jump–yip bouts adjusted their behaviour relative to the response of conspecifics recruited to display bouts. Increased responsiveness of neighbouring town members resulted in bout initiators devoting a significantly greater proportion of time to active foraging. Contagious jump–yips thus function to assess neighbours' alertness, soliciting social information to assess effective conspecific group size in real time and reveal active probing of conspecific awareness consistent with theory of mind in these group-living rodents.

Related Stories

Multiple mates worth the risk for female prairie dogs

Dec 04, 2013

Mating with more than one male increases reproductive success for female prairie dogs, despite an increase in risks. This is according to a new study published in The Journal of Mammalogy by behavioral ecolog ...

Prairie dogs kiss more when being watched

Feb 17, 2011

( -- Researchers in the US studying the behavior of black-tailed prairie dogs at a local zoo have discovered they behave differently, kissing and cuddling each other more when people are watching ...

Prairie dog research promotes caring, conservation

Mar 10, 2009

The Northern Arizona University biology professor states the case for protecting the species in Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society, recently published by Harvard University Press.

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

22 hours ago

( —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

( —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

( —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Researchers develop new model of cellular movement

( —Cell movement plays an important role in a host of biological functions from embryonic development to repairing wounded tissue. It also enables cancer cells to break free from their sites of ...

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.