Prairie dogs are rodents native to the grasslands of North America.
There are 5 species of prairie dogs: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs.
The lifespan of prairie dogs is from 3 to 5 years in the wild and up to 10 years in captivity.
On average, these stout-bodied rodents will grow to be between 30 and 40 cm (12 and 16 in) long, including the short tail, and weigh between 0.5 and 1.5 kilograms (1 and 3 lb).
They have broad, rounded heads, hairy tails and short legs.
Their short, coarse fur is grizzled yellowish buff to reddish or rich cinnamon.
Prairie dogs live mainly at altitudes ranging from 600 to 3,050 meters (2,000 to 10,000 feet) above sea level. The areas where they live can get as warm as 38 °C (100 °F) in the summer and as cold as −37 °C (−35 °F) in the winter.
Prairie dogs are social rodents that live in huge, underground burrows, called towns. Undisturbed towns have tens of thousands of prairie dog residents and go for kilometers/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 0.4 hectare (1 acre) from surrounding coteries. The typical coterie territory has 70 separate burrow entrances.
A pile of dirt outside each burrow entrance indicates a prairie dog town. The dirt piles provide protection from the weather. They also 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.
In 1901, scientists surveyed a single Texas “dog town” that covered an area of almost 65,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) and contained an estimated 400 million prairie dogs.
Prairie dogs are diurnal and spend much of the day looking for food; they do not store food in their burrows.
Prairie dogs are chiefly herbivorous, though they eat some insects. Succulent parts of herbs and grasses, leaves, and new shrub growth are eaten in the spring, and seeds are the primary component of the summer diet, with stems and roots being the mainstay in fall and early winter.
During winter, prairie dogs stay in their burrows and survive on the fat in their bodies which they store up when food was plentiful.
Prairie dogs can run very fast– at around 56 km/h (35 mph) – for short distances.
Prairie dogs communicate information about threats to each other through a range of differently pitched and constructed chirps and barks.
They communicate not only through vocalizations, but also through physical interactions, like kissing.
The prairie dog is well adapted to predators. Using its dichromatic color vision, it can detect predators from a great distance; it then alerts other prairie dogs of the danger with a special, high-pitched call.
Constantine Slobodchikoff and others assert that prairie dogs use a sophisticated system of vocal communication to describe specific predators. According to them, prairie dog calls contain specific
information as to what the predator is, how big it is and how fast it is approaching.
Late winter or early spring is the breeding season for prairie dogs, and after about a month’s gestation, females drop a litter of 3 to 8 young. The young, called pups, are born hairless and with eyes closed. In the nursery, the mother takes care of her pups until they are about six weeks old and ready to venture above ground. At about one year of age, the young prairie dogs may leave to start a new coterie by taking over abandoned tunnels or by digging new ones.
Ecologists consider this rodent to be a keystone species. A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance.
Their colonies create islands of habitats that benefit approximately 150 other species. They are also a food source for many animals including hawks, owls, eagles, ravens, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, badgers, ferrets, and snakes.
Until 2003, primarily black-tailed prairie dogs were collected from the wild for the exotic pet trade in Canada, the United States, Japan, and Europe. They were removed from their underground burrows each spring, as young pups, with a large vacuum device.
Despite the name, they are not actually canines.
They are named for their habitat and warning call, which sounds similar to a dog‘s bark. The name was in use at least as early as 1774.
In companies that use large numbers of cubicles in a common space, employees sometimes use the term “prairie dogging” to refer to the action of several people simultaneously looking over the walls of their cubicles in response to a noise or other distraction. This action is thought to resemble the startled response of a group of prairie dogs.