How did the Prairie dog get its name? It’s said that during the westward expansion, the prairie dog’s trademark chirp reminded settlers of a dog’s bark. But prairie dogs share little else with their canine namesakes, and they are actually members of the rodent family Sciuridae, which includes ground squirrels and woodchucks.
The black-tailed prairie dog, the most common of the five prairie dog species, once lived all along the Rocky Mountain range, from Southern Canada to Mexico. But as humans claimed more land in the region, prairie dog habitat shrunk—the species has lost more than 99% of its historical range and is now found in only 11 U.S. states.
Prairie Dog Town
Prairie dogs build underground communities called prairie dog towns, which can cover anywhere from one to a hundred acres. (In Texas, a 25,000-square-mile prairie dog town was once reported, but such large communities are now a thing of the past.) The towns are made up of a system of burrows between three and six feet deep with several chambers for sleeping, storing food, and nesting.
Extremely social animals, black-tailed prairie dogs have a complicated system of communicating, using smell and touch as well as sounds. Scientists have identified at least 11 calls, including different barks to warn of different types of predators. When prairie dogs greet one another, they often touch mouths in an exchange that resembles kissing to the casual human observer.
Around each burrow entrance is a mound of soil, one- to three-feet high, which is used as a lookout point. If a prairie dog spots a predator, she or he will bark a warning, and the rest of the community will scoot into their burrows until the danger has passed. Other members of the family Sciuridae also emit alarm calls, but black-tailed prairie dogs may be among the few species in which males call as often as females. Interestingly, both male and female black-tailed prairie dogs are more likely to sound the call when their close kin are nearby.
The denizens of a prairie dog town are split into groups called coteries, which break down into even smaller groups made up of a male, up to four females, and pups.
March and April are the months when prairie dog pups are born. A litter size can range from one to six pups—each born blind, hairless, and weighing about 15 grams. (As adults, they will reach 1.5 to 2.5 lbs. and between 12 and 16 inches in length.) The pups begin to emerge from the burrow at around six weeks, at which point they start eating the grasses and other vegetation that comprise the prairie dog diet. By the time they are a year old, most males will have left the family group for good.
A Keystone Species
The black-tailed prairie dog is essential to the short grass prairie ecosystem. Badgers, coyotes, weasels, golden eagles, hawks, swift foxes, and snakes all rely on prairie dogs for food. So dependent is the black-footed ferret that this endangered species cannot survive unless prairie dog populations are maintained.
And prairie dog towns attract many non-predators. Meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, and other birds gravitate to them because seeds and insects are more available. When burrows are abandoned, they become home to the likes of burrowing owls, white-tailed rabbits and other animals. In addition, bison and pronghorn antelope (as well as domestic cattle) prefer to graze on or near prairie dog towns, most likely because prairie dog foraging increases the quality of grassland plants.
Taken with my Nikon ~