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