Prairie dogs reside in complex burrow systems. Entrances are easily spotted by the raised mounds of loose soil. These mounds allow a higher vantage point for sentries, or lookouts, to spot predators.
Small close-knit families called coteries compose the base of prairie dog social structure. Coteries consist of an adult male, one or more adult females, and their young offspring. Groups of neighboring coteries form a prairie dog colony.
Prairie dogs mate in March, and give birth to three or four pups in April or May. For 1-2 months, the mother will nurse and care for the pups underground. Once they emerge, the pups are nursed communally by other group members.
Not only do prairie dogs rely heavily on a social network for raising young, they also use it to escape from predators. When a predator is near, communication among the colony is vital. Using a repetitive series of warning barks, prairie dogs can provide detailed descriptions of a predator by varying the frequency and pitch of their barks. For example, prairie dogs can communicate not just that the predator is a human, but also whether the human is short, fat, skinny, or tall.
Their barks also indicate the location of the predator. All members of the colony remain outside the burrow to keep an eye on the threat. If they were to all retreat into the burrow, the predator would simply attack when a prairie dog poked its head of out the entrance to check if the coast was clear. In this way, their system of warning barks has proven to be most successful.
Prairie dogs also perform jump-yip calls, in which they stand on the mound, throw their head back, and let out a high-pitched bark, sometimes evening toppling onto their backs due to the exertion.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are a keystone species; they play an integral role in promoting animal and plant diversity in the Great Plains. Without them, life on the plains would be vastly different.
Feeding on grasses, sedges, forbs (broad-leafed vegetation), roots, and seeds, prairie dogs keep vegetation short, fast-growing, and full of nutrition. Their digging action churns up soil like a plow, allowing for more fertile plant life. This in turn draws other wildlife like pronghorns, bison, and rabbits to the area to graze.
Prairie dog colonies also make suitable habitats for other animals. Their burrows sometimes become homes for rabbits, salamanders, snakes, and burrowing owls. In addition, mountain plovers prefer the areas of clipped grass for nesting.
Finally, prairie dogs provide an ample food source for golden eagles, hawks, swift foxes, coyotes, badgers, and endangered black-footed ferrets.
Although they once numbered in the hundreds of millions, prairie dog populations are now estimated at around 10-20 million. Their numbers have decreased as a result of habitat destruction due to development and agriculture. Additionally, many farmers poison or shoot prairie dogs because they believe the animals interfere with cattle grazing. Finally, prairie dog populations have been largely affected by the sylvatic plague.
In 2000, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species candidate for the Endangered Species Act. After further investigation, they determined that prairie dogs were not likely to become endangered in the near future and removed them as candidates in 2004. The IUCN Red List classifies the black-tailed prairie dog as a species of least concern of becoming extinct due to the slow rate of their population decline.
What You Can Do to Help
If you would like to help the black-tailed prairie dog, there are several things you can do. You can contact government officials at the local, state, and federal levels advocating further protection for black-tailed prairie dogs. You can also make donations to charities trying to save the Great Plains and its wildlife like Defenders of Wildlife, American Prairie Foundation, or Southern Plains Land Trust.
Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Distribution
Prairie Dog Resources
- Prairie Dog Coalition
- American Prairie Foundation
- Southern Plains Land Trust
- Defenders of Wildlife Black-tailed Prairie Dog Page
- US Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2004 Prairie Dog Press Release
- “New Language Discovered: Prairiedogese,” NPR.org, January 20, 2011