Facts about prairie dogs

  • Prairie dogs

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler
  • Prairie dog

    Predator Project photo
  • Prairie dog

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Prairie dogs come in five types: Utah, Gunnison, Mexican, white-tailed and black-tailed. The Utah prairie dog is listed as a threatened species and the Mexican is listed as endangered.

Prairie dogs are active during the day, but only if the sun is out. Socially, they organize themselves into coteries, with one male protecting a one-acre plot for four to five females, each with its own five-pup (on average) litter.

Prairie dogs become combative in the spring, when new litters are born and male yearlings from the previous year's litters attempt to take over. Those who lose - whether young or old - hit the road, following any beaten trail available until they come to a heavily grazed area where they attempt to create a new town.

Burrows with high dome-shaped mounds are entrance holes which dogs start digging from the surface. They tightly pack the dirt of the mounds by butting it with their heads after a rain. Exit holes are excavated from underneath and thus have very low mounds. Exit holes are also steeper and, consequently, the preferred route to escape predators. Once a predator departs, prairie dogs will jump in the air, arch their backs and bark out - -Weeee-Ohhh' - meaning "Everything's A-OK."

Some prairie dogs will walk down a road that leads to a boat ramp on a river or lake and start to swim. Since they aren't great swimmers, they usually drown.

Prairie dog towns have been called the supermarkets of the Great Plains. Up to 165 species of animals and insects either live in the burrows, eat the prairie dogs, graze on the highly nutritious weedy plants that grow there, or find insects more readily in the short vegetation.

The black-tailed prairie dog once held a symbiotic relationship with the bison. Bison would congregate in dog towns to graze. As a colony's prairie dog population increased, the strong dogs would drive off the weak. The exiled dogs would disperse to new areas, following the bison trails. The elimination of bison from the range also led to a large decrease in prairie dog populations across the West. The rodent rebounded when cattle took over the bison's role.

Studies in Oklahoma show that cows grazing prairie dog towns put on the same weight as cows grazing in high grass outside the towns, despite the fact that they take in less volume.

The prairie dog will outlast a camel in the desert. It can live off its body fat without eating or drinking for up to 60 days, while retaining normal body temperature and remaining active at any time of the year. Consequently, not all prairie dogs hibernate during the winter.

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