Animal of the Month
February 2019

Name: Prairie Dog

Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Sciuridae
Tribe: Marmotini
Genus: Cynomys
- Gunnison's Prairie Dog - C. gunnisoni
- White-tailed Prairie Dog - C. leucurus
- Black-tailed Prairie Dog - C. ludovicianus
- Mexican Prairie Dog - C. mexicanus
- Utah Prairie Dog - C. parvidens

Size: 12-15 inches long
Weight: 1-4lbs

Characteristics: Roundish pudgy bodies covered in fur, small heads, four small limbs, small ears.
Color(s): Brown
Behavior: Lives in family groups, burrows tunnels..
Preferred Habitat: Plains and open grasslands.
Range: Plains and grasslands from Canada to Mexico.
Diet: Grass, flowering plants, seeds, sedges and occasionally insects.
Lifespan: 3-5 years in the wild, 8 years in captivity.

Gunnison's, White-tailed and Black-tailed prairie dogs -
Least Concern
Mexican and Utah prairie dogs - Endangered

Have you ever been on the plains in North America and seen these strange, fluffy creatures digging in the dirt? You probably saw a prairie dog! Prairie dogs, however, are not a type of dog. Rather they are a type of ground squirrel, and they are very important in their ecosystem. Prairie dogs can be found on plains and grasslands from Canada all the way into northern Mexico.

There are five subspecies of prairie dogs, and all of them make their homes by digging burrows in the ground. The most common of these is the black-tailed prairie dog. All prairie dogs eat grass, seeds, flowering plants, sedges (a type of grass-like plant) and sometimes insects.

Most prairie dogs live groups called "towns", or clusters of family groups, each living in their own burrow. Burrows are dug with a purpose; prairie dogs dig chambers for sleeping, nurseries and even toilets! A town can contain hundreds of prairie dogs and be up to half a square mile in size. The largest known town however was found in Texas; it was 25,000 square miles and had as many as 400 million prairie dogs! White-tailed prairie dogs are the exception to this rule, preferring to live in scattered burrows rather than full towns.

Prairie dogs are very social animals. Family groups interact by grooming and "kissing" one-another. Prairie dogs possess one of the most sophisticated "languages" of all mammals. They communicate to warn each other of predators and to find mates through chirping and barking. Their calls have been proven to be incredibly complex, to the point of identifying characteristics of specific people!

Most family groups are made up of one male and two or three females plus their offspring. After mating in the spring, females will carry their young for about 35 days and then give birth to a litter of 1-6 pups. Females will stay with their families for their whole lives, however males will venture out to find their own prairie dog family when they grow up. Males are very protective of their families from other males and will fiercely guard the burrows.

Prairie dogs are called a keystone species, meaning they play a fundamental role in their own ecosystem. Prairie dogs shape their very environment, helping to provide a suitable habitat for at least 150 other species! They are also a major food source for all kinds of animals ranging from hawks and eagles to coyotes, badgers and endangered black-footed ferrets, among others.

Prairie dogs are in grave peril. Utah and Mexican prairie dogs are classed as endangered. Currently Gunnison, black-tailed and white-tailed prairie dogs are officially classed as least concern, however their numbers have dropped by 95%. There were one as many as a billion prairie dogs ranging from Canada to Mexico. Over the decades, prairie dogs have died from the bubonic plague, the same plague that caused the Black Death Europe! In addition they are considered pests by farmers and developers and are often poisoned. Killing prairie dogs is not just bad for the prairie dogs; as they are a keystone species, eliminating prairie dogs disrupts the entire ecosystem, forcing other animals like hawks and coyotes to move elsewhere for food. Other animals like burrowing owls are robbed of homes that prairie dogs would have dug for them. Furthermore, poisoning them also contaminates the land, making it toxic for other animals. It is true that prairie dogs can cause problems for farmers, but it would be more humane and ecologically sound to remove prairie dogs that are problematic rather than to kill them.

There is however hope for these cute little critters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has plans to distribute a vaccine among prairie dogs through a fleet of drones, thus protecting them from disease. As for their habitat, many prairie dog towns are located within national parks and are thus protected. The World Wildlife Fund is working with the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to identify and preserve prairie dog towns as well as black-footed ferrets. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) founded a team in 1998 to promote prairie dog protection. A lot more needs to be done, but these are excellent steps in the right direction.

To learn more about these adorable burrowers and how to help them, start here:

World Wildlife Fund, Black-Footed Ferret page - This article is more about the Black-footed ferret, but it does explain how prairie dogs are important to ferrets and what WWF is doing to save both.

WAFWA, Prairie Dog Team - Fighting for prairie dogs through partnerships and strategic planning.

Defenders of Wildlife, Prairie Dog page - This wonderful organization is working to provide nonlethal methods for relocating prairie dogs.


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