December 08, 2004

Prairie dog talk

Tenser, said the Tensor discusses an AP story by Tania Soussan about Con Slobodchikoff's research on prairie dog communication. TstT mentions that Slobodchikoff's web page doesn't have online versions of the relevant research, so I thought I'd try out Google Scholar and Elsevier's Scirus. Since Slobodchikoff is an unusual name, it should make a good probe.

Scirus first. It turns up 317 total results, of which 64 are journal articles. There are several interesting things on the first couple of pages, some of which are relevant:

J. Placer and C. N. Slobodchikoff, "A method for identifying sounds used in the classification of alarm calls", Behavioural Processes, Volume 67, Issue 1 , 30 July 2004, Pages 87-98.
R. K. Bangert and C. N. Slobodchikoff, "Prairie dog engineering indirectly affects beetle movement behavior", Journal of Arid Environments, Volume 56, Issue 1 , January 2004, Pages 83-94.
Judith Kiriazis and Con N. Slobodchikoff , "Anthropocentrism and the Study of Animal Language". Chapter 26 in Robert Mitchell and Nicholas Thompson, Eds., Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals, SUNY Press, 1996. [only the blurb is online]
Robert Cook's listing of links to Courses in Animal Cognition, Learning, and Behavior
, which includes a dead link to Con Slobodchikoff's course entitled "Behavior of Animals".
Bianca S. Perla and C. N. Slobodchikoff, "Habitat structure and alarm call dialects in Gunnison's prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni)", Behavioral Ecology Vol. 13 No. 6: 844-850.

Now Google Scholar. The same probe ("Slobodchikoff") yields 438 results. Because of publisher restrictions (especially by Elsevier!), many of the papers that it finds are not given active links. Partly making up for this, GS offers citation information. For example, one of the first papers in the list is

CN Slobodchikoff, J Kiriazis, C Fischer, E Creef, "Semantic information distinguishing individual predators in the alarm calls of Gunnison’s prairie …", Anim. Behav, 1991 [cited by 24]

and following the "cited by 24" link yields

Steven H. Ackers & C. N. Slobodchikoff, "Communication of Stimulus Size and Shape in Alarm Calls of Gunnison's Prairie Dogs, Cynomys gunnisoni", Volume 105 Issue 2 Page 149 - February 1999.

which does have an active link to the abstract (and text) because it's published by Blackwell. When it's possible to navigate around in a dense network of "cited by" links, it can be a very good way to see what's happening in a new subdiscipline. Unfortunately, many of the interesting nodes in this case are dead links, e.g.

DT Blumstein, KB Armitage, "Alarm calling in yellow-bellied marmots: I. The meaning of situationally variable alarm calls", Anim. Behav., 1997, 53, 143–171.

Many of the things found by Google Scholar are [citation]-type items, which seems to mean a "hit" which has not been scanned itself, but whose existence is inferred from a reference in a scanned work.

Of course, all of the Slobodchikoff papers found in both searches are listed on his web page, without hyperlinks but with references that could be used to track down the papers using more troublesome techniques, either online or in the library stacks. There are two kinds of value added: convenience in finding the links (more of which are available in this case through Scirus), and information about citations offered Google Scholar's "cited by" feature -- though you could also use ISI's citation index -- if you have a subscription, or your institution does.

Among other search tools, regular old Google turns up Slobodchikoff's home page, of course, but also page 1 (!) of

C. N. Slobodchikoff, "Cognition and communication in prairie dogs." In Marc Bekoff, Colin Allen and Gordon M. Burhgardt, eds., The Cognitive Animal: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives on Animal Cognition. The MIT Press, 2002.

Technorati turns up some 17 weblog posts, as of early this morning, all of which seem to be references to the AP article. I was disappointed, hoping to find that someone like Cosma Shalizi had researched Slobodnikoff's work. Though of course if he had, the Google and perhaps Scirus searches would already have told me.

CiteSeer doesn't turn up anything, in this case, which was also disappointing.

I got very good overall results from PsychInfo, in the version which is a specialization of the Cambridge Scientific Abstracts service. I accessed it through the Penn library site. It offers a variety of ways to get at the texts, including library call numbers and interlibrary loan where needed, and also citation information in some cases. It finds nine of Slobodchikoff's most relevant articles and book chapters.

Finally, I was disappointed to find that the MLA International bibliography, which is usually quite helpful, found nothing at all with "Slobodchikoff" as a probe. I guess Prairie Dog is not considered a Modern Language. That's fair enough, since I imagine that it hasn't changed much since the towers of Ilium were topped.

All in all, it's nice to be able to do so much so quickly -- the searching reported here took less than 15 minutes -- and all without leaving home. And a lot of the material can now also be found on line, though at least half of it still requires real-life activity (visiting libraries or buying books) to access.

The content of Slobodchikoff's papers is course interesting in itself. From what I've read, it looks very much like the pattern familiar from Seyfarth and Cheney's classic work on vervet alarm calls, with additional results on the encoding of more abstract size and shape information in call variation, and especially a focus on the use of "variation in the internal structure of a vocalization to define possible information structures", as Placer and Slobodchikoff put it in their 2004 paper. The work is definitely worth further study, and I'll have more to say about it at some point in the future.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 8, 2004 07:21 AM