Prairie Dog

Common Name: Black-tailed Prairie Dog
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Sciuridae
Genus: Cynomys
Species: Cynomys ludovicianus


photo M. Noonan

Prairie dogs are members of the squirrel family that live in complex burrow systems in the plains of North America. Thousands of prairie dogs can live in one “town”, with each town covering hundreds of acres of land beneath the earth’s surface. Each town is then divided into many coteries, or smaller groups of several females defended by a single male. The towns are located in short-grass prairies, usually avoiding areas with a lot of vegetation or tall grass. They will often even trim the grass surrounding their colony, presumably to increase visibility and aid in protection from predators. When a predator is spotted, prairie dogs use high-pitched barking calls to communicate with one another, warning others of the nearby danger.

Prairie dogs eat grass, leaves and roots surrounding their town. They do not drink because they get all of the water they need from the plants. This is an important adaptation because the prairie can be a very dry place.

While in the Midwest, we came across many prairie dog towns. It was fascinating to hear these ground squirrels announce our presence as we approached each town. The individuals that were above ground would hop up and down making chirping and barking sounds, and then would quickly scurry into their burrows.


photo M. Noonan

While hiking in Badlands National Park, we attempted to get some photographs of prairie dogs by sitting quietly outside the burrows waiting with cameras on hand. The members of this colony were not cooperating though, and after sitting patiently outside of the burrows for nearly an hour, we decided that this colony was not the best opportunity for photographs and began to move on. Later in the trip, we came across another large colony alongside a road. This colony was very accustomed to people stopping and watching them, and so we were able to get some great pictures!

Conservation of prairie dogs is of great importance to the prairie ecosystem. These animals were largely exterminated by farmers who killed the prairie dogs because they worried their cattle would break legs by stepping in the burrows. In reality, however, there are no known cases of any cattle ever being injured by a prairie dog burrow. Hunting prairie dogs for sport and for pest-control has persisted right up to modern times. If such hunting continues, the populations will continue to drop disastrous consequences will ensue for the ecosystem of the Great Plains.

Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone species” for the prairies. This means that they are a species whose existence adds to a diversity of life. If this keystone species becomes extinct, it would mean the extinction of many other forms of life as well. Over 200 other species have been observed living on or near prairie dog colonies. These colonies contribute to the ecosystem by providing burrows for other animals such as burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, and snakes; providing a food source for such species as badgers, black-footed ferrets, coyotes, and many birds of prey; and their burrowing churns the soil to enable the earth to better sustain plant life. Without prairie dogs present, many aspects of the prairie life would change or disappear.


photo M. Noonan

The prairie dog is one of the most important species in the American prairie. Its numbers used to be so great that Lewis and Clark on their journey up the Missouri River noted that the animal "appears in infinite numbers". Now due to the intrusion of man, this wonderful creature's populations have been dramatically reduced. We must save this animal not only because we are responsible for its demise, but also because western ecosystems depend on the prairie dog.

Prairie Dog Taxonomy/Description

Prairie dogs belong to the squirrel family, Sciuridae, which includes squirrels, chipmunks, and marmots, in the Mammalian Order Rodentia. Their scientific name is Cynomys ludovicianus, which means "dog mouse of Louisiana".

The Black-tailed prairie dog is 12 to 15 inches in length and weighs between 2 and 4 pounds. Its tail (which is black at the tip) measures 3 to 4 inches long. Black-tailed prairie dogs have short, muscular front legs and long claws that are used for burrowing. A prairie dog's eyes are located high on its head and are able to focus on overhead objects exceptionally well.

Prairie Dog Habitat/Diet

Black-tailed prairie dogs are native to the plains of western North America – particularly the short grass prairie. They live in small underground tunnels that make up a system of burrows accessed by mounds or holes. Prairie dog mounds have several functions. They prevent flooding; they facilitate ventilation and they serve as lookout posts. Prairie dogs are found in many national parks in the American West.


photo M. Noonan

Black-tailed prairie dogs eat about 2 pounds of food per week. Seventy to ninety-five percent of a black-tailed prairie dog’s diet is composed of the grasses of the short grass prairie. They also eat seeds, insects, roots and forbs. Black-tailed prairie dogs have favorite foods. In a given area, they eat all of their favorite food first and then move on to their other options.

Prairie Dog Behavior/Reproduction

Black-tailed prairie dogs are diurnal, which means that they are active during the day. They are gregarious (social), and live in densely populated groupings, called towns. These towns can be found across the Great Plains and can be up to 10,000 feet in diameter! Often the towns are subdivided into wards by physical barriers such as roads and trees. Within each town, prairie dogs live in family units called coteries – each coterie consists of 1 adult male, one to four adult females and their offspring under 2 years old. Most of a prairie dog’s travels are confined to its coterie territory.

Black-tailed prairie dogs communicate with one another using 11 distinct calls. Examples include a bark (indicating alarm), a chittering noise (used by a female in response to a male’s advances), a rasping noise (indicating attack), a high pitched scream (when distressed), and a constant chattering (indicating frustration).


photo M. Noonan

Black-tailed prairie dogs often stand upright atop mounds in order to see as far as possible. They also like to keep the height of the vegetation low around their mounds to improve visibility. When a predator approaches, prairie dogs scurry into their underground burrows. If a predator follows a prairie dog into its burrow, the prairie dogs respond by rapidly plugging up their tunnels with dirt. This traps the predator, at least temporarily. By the time the predator digs its way out, the prairie dog has had the opportunity to move out of danger.

Black-tailed prairie dogs maintain unity by "kissing". When two prairie dogs meet, they touch their front teeth. This activity is used to distinguish a coterie member from a stranger. The bared teeth of a kiss tend to scare away strangers. However, prairie dogs are very territorial, and will fight invaders in a reverse kissing encounter called a tail-spread dispute. The dispute involves posturing and some physical contact and culminates in there-establishment of a boundary.


photo M. Noonan

There are two ways that prairie dogs control population density. Prairie dog males disperse before the first breeding season of their lives. They travel either to neighboring coteries or to a new site. Many do not survive this trip. A second way that prairie dogs control population density is via rampant underground cannibalism that occurs following the birth of pups in the spring!

Black-tailed prairie dogs are sexually mature at 2 years of age. They breed only once per year. The breeding season begins in March and lasts 2 to 3 weeks. The gestation period of a black-tailed prairie dog is 34 to 35 days. A typical liter contains 1 to 6 pups. Prairie dog young are altricial - born weak, hairless and blind. They develop for several weeks underground before leaving their burrows.

Prairie Dog Obligates

The activities of the prairie dog influence the capacity of the environment to support other animals. A vast array of insects, birds, reptiles and mammals use prairie dog burrows for nests. We studied these creatures while we were in South Dakota. They included the rattlesnake and coyote as depicted here, and the Burrowing Owl and Black-footed Ferret. Follow the links at left side of the screen to learn more about these fascinating animals.

Prairie Dog History

Due to their bark-like warning call, early French Canadian settlers in the United States named the black tailed prairie dog petits chiens, which means "little dogs". However, not everyone thinks these little dogs are cute. Currently prairie dogs populations are experiencing serious decline. Unfortunately, they are considered pests by ranchers and are often poisoned or shot. Some people argue that they reduce the forage available for livestock. Since 1900, the population of prairie dogs has been reduced by 98%! Two prairie dog species (out of five) are now threatened or endangered.

Our Experiences with Prairie Dogs


photo M. Noonan

While in South Dakota, all of the CAC members enjoyed watching the antics of prairie dogs. On grazing land across from Buffalo Gap National Grassland, we were able to observe a black tailed prairie dog town. The prairie dogs saw us approach, gave a warning call and proceeded to head underground. These prairie dogs were very wary of our presence, and kept a considerable distance. Later, we visited a black tailed prairie dog community in Badlands National Park that was located near a main road. These prairie dogs were very habituated to the presence of people and we were able to get some great pictures and make close observations of the animals’ behavior – especially their vocalizations and feeding.

Prairie Dog Conservation

Sadly, prairie dogs have a history of being methodically exterminated by humans. Long extermination campaigns were so successful that three decades ago naturalists predicted the prairie dogs’ imminent extinction. Biologists now estimate that the prairie dogs have undergone a 98 percent population decline during the 20th century! Of the 5 billion prairie dogs that once existed in the American mid-west, only about 100 million remain today. Prairie dogs exist on only 2 percent of their historical home range. Loss of habitat due to conversion of prairie for agricultural purposes has had a significant impact on the prairie dog population. Short grass prairie is the land type most frequently converted to cropland, due to its relatively flat topography.

In several of the states in which prairie dogs live, they are considered a legal agricultural pest. Livestock owners feel that prairie dogs compete with livestock for food, as they are both grazers. However, studies indicate that while prairie dogs decrease the volume of grass in pastures by 4 to 8 percent, their grazing pattern actually increase the productivity, species diversity and protein content of the grass in their towns. Studies also show that prairie dog grazing does not effect cattle weight gain. Ranchers also fear that livestock will step in prairie dog holes and break their legs. Some states even mandate the killing of a certain number of prairie dogs each year as an attempt to manage the population. In addition to being shot in management efforts, prairie dogs are often hunted for recreation. Prairie dogs are highly susceptible to disease, specifically sylvatic plague and yerinia pestis. Outbreaks of these diseases have been known to wipe out entire prairie dog towns. Of the five species of prairie dog, the Utah and Mexican species are listed as threatened and endangered respectively.


photo M. Noonan

Since numerous species of animals inhabit prairie dog towns and depend upon the prairie dog for survival, the decrease of the prairie dog population has precipitated a decrease in the populations of several other species, most notably the black-footed ferret. The black-footed ferret is the most endangered mammal in North America, and efforts are being made to reestablish communities in the wild. It is illegal to hunt prairie dogs in the area immediately surrounding black footed ferret reintroduction sites.

 

Glossary:

Rodentia - Mammalian Order, which means "gnawers", consisting of all mammals called 'rodents', including mice, rats, guinea pigs, squirrels, cavies, and marmots.
 

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