Tue February 22, 2011
The Two-Way

I, Rodent: Making A Case For Unique Prairie Dogs

People who love to adorn themselves with over-the-top accessories may want to thank UCLA for opening a new path to enablement. Biologists from the school have found that heightened individuality is an integral part of life in large groups of social animals.

By studying prairie dogs and other rodents for more than six years, life scientists Kimberly Pollard and Daniel Blumstein found that as they studied larger social groups, they found that each animal's "signature" vocal call was more individual.

In a press release about the research, which will be published in the journal Current Biology next month, the scientists found that "species that had to contend with bigger crowds did so with more unique voices.... The larger the social group, the easier it was to tell any two individual animals apart."

The research might shed light on why people in large societies – for instance, in cities, or even in online communities like Facebook – sometimes go to great lengths to assert their individuality.

But the study also offers bad news to anyone who may think today's humans are already a bit too fascinated by their own uniqueness. The researchers predict that in the future, there will likely be even more evolutionary pressure on people to show off display their individuality.

"The number of individuals that humans must recognize seems to be growing, especially as we become more globally connected and as social groups become less clearly defined," Pollard said. "This is probably increasing the evolutionary pressure on our own individuality.

But don't punish the messenger – in this case, that seems to have already happened. Pollard and Blumstein conducted their study by "recording alarm-call vocalizations in eight species of rodents that live in social groups of various sizes."

To summarize, yes: That's six years of listening to screeching rodents. And thinking about what all the commotion is about. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.