Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 12 inches (30 centimeters)
Shoulder height: 3 inches (8 centimeters)
Weight: 1 to 3 pounds (454 to 1,362 grams)
Life span: 3 to 5 years
Gestation: 28 to 32 days
Number of young at birth: 3 to 8, 4 on average
Age of maturity: 1 year
Conservation status: Mexican prairie dog is endangered
Settlers called these animals "dogs" because
of their high-pitched, bark-like call.
Abandoned prairie dog burrows are often used as homes by burrowing owls, rabbits, badgers, weasels, snakes, black-footed ferrets, salamanders, insects, and even foxes.
One prairie dog town discovered in Texas in 1900 was the size of the state of Maryland and was thought to contain some 400 million prairie dogs in its tunnels!
Mammals: Prairie Dog
Prairie home companion
When is a dog not a dog? When it's a large ground squirrel found on the prairie! Prairie dogs are very social rodents that live in huge underground burrows called "towns." Undisturbed towns have tens of thousands of prairie dog residents and go for miles in every direction. Each town consists of subgroups, or "wards," and wards are in turn split into family groups called "coteries." Each coterie defends a home territory of about 1 acre (0.4 hectare) from surrounding coteries. The typical coterie territory has 70 separate burrow entrances.
Prairie dog towns can easily be found by the pile of dirt outside each burrow entrance. The mounds provide protection from the weather and give the little prairie dogs some extra height when watching for predators. Underground, the tunnels contain separate chambers for sleeping, rearing young, and eliminating waste.
This is my neighborhood!
When prairie dogs from different coteries meet, there's trouble! To show who is the boss, they stare at each other, chatter their teeth, and flare their tails. These territorial arguments may last for more than 30 minutes and sometimes include fights and chases. Although prairie dogs can be fiercely territorial about their coterie, they cooperate with surrounding families by acting as sentries, or lookouts, and warn each other of invading predators or other signs of danger.
Eating out on the town
Prairie dog feeding habits have a big effect on the landscape. They eat grasses, roots, seeds, and other leafy plants. Tall plants are destroyed and the clearings created make it hard for predators to launch a sneak attack. Prairie dogs are diurnal and spend much of the day looking for food; they do not store food in their burrows. At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the prairie dogs are fed high-fiber herbivore pellets, raw corn and yams, and browse to nibble on. Special treats include small folivore biscuits and peanuts!
When a female prairie dog is ready to give birth, she goes to the nursery burrow. The young, called pups, are born hairless and with eyes closed. In the nursery, the mother will take care of her pups until they are about six weeks old and ready to venture aboveground. At about one year of age, the young prairie dog may leave to start a new coterie by taking over abandoned tunnels or by digging new ones.
Prairie dogs have a communication system that warns other members of the town of danger. Different sounds identify various predators such as hawks, owls, eagles, ravens, coyotes, badgers, ferrets, and snakes.
When a predator approaches, the first alert prairie dog gives a sharp warning call, bobs up and down in excitement, calls again, and then plunges into the burrow below. This warning call is a 2-syllable bark, issued at about 40 barks per minute. Other lookouts farther from the danger zone take up the watch, noting the progress of the predator and alerting the town members along the route.
Home on the range
At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated five billion prairie dogs lived on millions of acres of grass prairies across western North America. Since then, the prairie dog population has dropped by 98 percent. The Mexican prairie dog Cynomys mexicanus is endangered and the Utah prairie dog Cynomys parvidens was saved from extinction by the Endangered Species Act.
The importance of prairie dogs
Unfortunately, ranchers have long viewed prairie dogs as pests that compete with their livestock for food. Because they eat as much as seven percent of a ranch's forage, prairie dog elimination programs have been under way for decades in the American West. Now, a growing number of experts argue that prairie dogs may, in fact, be helpful to ranchers and others. The prairie dog is an important part of the prairie ecosystem. Prairie dogs' churning activities aerate the soil to allow for more water penetration, while their nitrogen-rich dung improves the quality of the soil and vegetation. The prairie dog also supports a wide variety of species in another way: foxes, coyotes, weasels, snakes, hawks, eagles, and the endangered black-footed ferret are some of the many predators that rely on prairie dogs for food.