Prairie dogs and their 'contagious' Mexican wave explained

Study suggests the animals use the wave-like move to test alertness

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The Independent Online

Researchers believe they may have discovered why black-tailed prairie dogs repeatedly perform a Mexican wave like display when in a colony.

The ‘jump-yip’ action could be to test the responsiveness of others to prevent them from being eaten by predators, according to a new study.

Professor James Hare, of the University of Manibota in Winnipeg, said the 'contagious' jump-yip tests the responsiveness of the animals' neighbours and their vigilance, assessing how much they can rely on their awareness of potential dangers.

His study, Catch the Wave: Prairie Dogs Assess Neighbours’ Awareness Using Contagious Displays contradicts previous notions that the move was an ‘all-clear’ signal by the prairie dogs.

Prof Hare and his team observed the behaviour of the animals in the wild and filmed their displays, noting that the dogs foraged less when others were less responsive to their jump-yip display. But if their neighbours were more responsive, their vigilance appeared to decrease and they foraged more.

Prof Hare said: “This fits beautifully with work on primates, including humans, which suggests that contagious displays – like yawning – provide a window into the mind of others, suggesting of course, that species probing the minds of others are aware that they are distinct from those individuals. That is to say, they are consciously aware.”

The team concluded that the jump-yip is used to gather social information about others to judge the risk of reducing their own vigilance. If prairie dogs were convinced their neighbours were paying attention, they felt comfortable devoting more time to foraging for food. 

Prof Hare’s research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.