Prairie dogs are charming rabbit sized rodents that are found in North America. They were once the most abundant mammal in North America. They could be found all over the Great Plains of North America. The estimated population was about one billion. In the 29th century as land was converted to agriculture and pastureland they were considered pests and exterminated in the thousands. The population of prairie dog has decreased by 95% and only 10 to 20 million of these giant squirrels live in North America, today.
FACT 1: The prairie dog is an herbivorous rodent. They are found only in North and Central America. There are 5 species of prairie dogs. They are the black tailed prairie dog, the white tailed prairie dog, the Gunnison, Mexican and Utah prairie dogs. The most common species is the black tailed prairie dog, endemic to the Great Plains of North America.
FACT 2: Prairie dogs weigh between 0.5 and 1.5 kg. They are between 12 and 15 inches long including and 2-3” tail. In the wild they live for 3-4 years, but can live up to 8 years in captivity.
FACT 3: Prairie dogs live underground in a complicated series of inter connected burrows that they spend much of their time digging. The burrows or warrens have many rooms. There are nurseries, bedrooms and even separate rooms for refuse. The entrance to the burrows is marked by a mound of packed earth. Close to the entrance are little listening posts. These posts are strategically located. They are close enough to the surface to be able to hear the predators but deep enough to keep the listener out of reach of the predator. The burrows have air vents and at least one escape route.
FACT 4: The prairie dog is a social animal. They live in small groups called coteries. A coterie typically comprises one male, five or six females and the young. Members of a coterie exhibit external signs of affection. The kiss, nuzzle and groom one another. It is great fun to watch them indulge in these endearing habits. They recognize members of their coterie by touching bared teeth together. Intruders are sent packing.
FACT 5: Communication is vital to the survival for these defenceless creatures. They communicate with a large variety of whistles and barks. When they are out foraging, designated sentries sit atop the mounds. At the first hint of danger the sentry issues a sharp warning bark, putting other prairie dogs on the alert. If the danger draws closer the others take up the call, and much like an air raid warning, all the prairie dogs dive for cover. When danger has passed the sentry signals the all clear with a song like bark.
FACT 6: Prairie dog burrows are massive. In Texas a series of burrows extending over 25,000 square miles was reported. The burrow supposedly housed 400 million prairie dogs. These huge dwelling invite unwanted guests. The burrowing owl, the rattlesnake and the black footed ferret often jam in to these readymade comfortable dwellings.
FACT 7: Females bring soft grasses into the burrow to make soft nurseries for their young. Three to four pups are born after a gestation period of 33 to 38 days. They sever all family ties by four months, but attain sexual maturity at two years.
FACT 8: Prairie dogs come out to feed early in the morning and in the late evening. They spend the hot sunny afternoons inside their burrows which are considerably cooler than the plains.
FACT 9: They do not hibernate, but sleep through inclement weather, drawing on accumulated fat for nutrition.
FACT 10: The prairie dog is considered a keystone species. Their extensive benefit 150 other species. They are a food source for coyotes, eagles, badgers and the black footed ferret. The mass extermination of prairie dogs caused the near extinction of the black footed ferret. They aerate and fertilize the soil. A diversity of plant life thrives in prairie dog habitat.