Prairie Dogs Do the Wave

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Prairie dogs have their own version of a stadium wave, known as the “jump-yip,” which helps them connect with others and assess their alertness, new research finds.

Like a stadium wave, the behavior is contagious, starting with one individual and then often spreading through a whole prairie dog town, according to a paper in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The “jump-yip” is pretty noisy too.

The move involves standing erect  -- sometimes even jumping -- while lifting the forelimbs and vocalizing.

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James Hare of the University of Manitoba and colleagues explain that the sound “can be described phonetically as ‘wee-oo’ as the anterior torso is raised and then lowered.”

Over a couple of years’ time, the researchers studied these displays at 16 prairie dog towns  – they really are called towns! — in South and North Dakota, as well as in Winnipeg and Manitoba, Canada.

Previously, the display was commonly regarded as an “all-clear” signal, but that didn’t make sense to Hare and his team, who note that prairie dogs will jump-yip even when predators are around.

Instead, the scientists determined that prairie dogs do the move in order to assess the awareness of others. If a prairie dog in the study jumped up and wee-ooed and not many others joined in, the individual would forage less. Conversely, if the prairie dog got a great response, it would forage with gusto.

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Jump-yips, therefore, help to probe the awareness of others, the researchers conclude.

The stadium wave among humans, at events like the Super Bowl, is very comparable, I think. The sports fans aren’t foraging — except maybe for hot dogs and beer — but they do assess team spirit and enhance their sense of togetherness while doing the wave.

It’s an animal thing!

Photo: Darlene Stack