Prairie dogs are small little furry animals. They grow to just over a foot tall and have a tail that is 3 to 4 inches long. They typically weigh between 2 to 4 pounds. They have brown fur, black eyes, and short limbs with claws.
Different Types of Prairie Dogs
There are five different species of prairie dogs including the black-tailed (udovicianus), white-tailed (leucurus), Mexican (mexicanus), Gunnison's (gunnisoni), and the Utah (parvidens).
Are they really dogs?
Prairie dogs are not really dogs, but are a type of rodent or ground squirrel. They got the name "dog" from the dog-like bark sound they make.
Where do they live?
They live primarily in the central part of the United States in the Great Plains. They live in areas that have a wide range of temperatures from very cold to extremely hot.
Black-tailed prairie dog Source: USFWS
Prairie dogs are perhaps most famous for the burrows that they make. They build large burrows under the ground with numerous entrances. Their burrows are typically 6 to 10 feet deep and are made up of long tunnels and chambers. Some of the chambers have specific uses such as nursery chambers for young prairie dogs, nighttime chambers, chambers for the winter, and places to listen for predators.
Prairie Dog Towns
Prairie dogs live in a complex social society. The smallest group is a family group called a "coterie" or "clan". Family groups typically consist of a male, a few females, and their offspring. Each coterie typically covers an area of about one acre and will have a burrow with 60 to 70 entrances. Several family groups can make up a prairie dog town. Some prairie dog towns have tens of thousands of prairie dogs and cover miles and miles of land. Large towns may have a division between the town and the coterie called a ward. A ward is made up of several coteries.
What do prairie dogs eat?
Prairie dogs are omnivores, meaning they eat plants. They eat roots, seeds, grasses, and leafy plants.
Defending Their Homes
Prairie dogs have a number of ways to defend their homes from predators. First they clear out much of the landscape of tall plants and make clearings so that they can see predators approaching. They also make tall mounds at some of the entrances to their burrows so they can look for predators from a higher vantage point. Then they post sentries who keep an eye out for predators. If they see danger, they give a quick warning bark and all the nearby prairie dogs scurry for safety into their burrows.
Typical predators include hawks, coyotes, badgers, snakes, and eagles.
White-tailed prairie dog Source: USFWS
Are they endangered?
It is estimated that just over 100 years ago there were around 5 billion prairie dogs living on the Great Plains. That is a lot of prairie dogs! However, their population has dwindled significantly and around 98% of the prairie dog population is gone. This drop is mostly because farmers and ranchers see the animal as a pest which destroys their crops and the food of their livestock. As a result, ranchers have actively been eliminating prairie dogs for decades.
The Utah and the Mexican prairie dog are officially classified as endangered species. However, the large drop in population of all of the species is of great concern to many scientists.
An Important Species
Today many scientists are saying that prairie dogs are an important part of the ecosystem and the grassland biome. They are considered a "keystone species". Prairie dogs provide food for a number of predators, help to aerate the soil with their burrows, and fertilize the soil with their dung.
Fun Facts about the Prairie Dog
Some scientists think that the warning bark of the prairie dog is different for different predators. This is because they will react differently to the bark if the predator is hawk vs. if it is a human or a coyote.
There was a prairie dog town in Texas that is estimated to have contained over 400 million prairie dogs.
A lot of other animals make use of prairie dog burrows to live in. These include badgers, rabbits, snakes, and weasels.
The typical lifespan of a prairie dog is three to four years.
They mostly stay in their burrows during the winter, living off of fat they have stored up during the summer. White-tailed prairie dogs will often hibernate for up to 6 months out of the year.