Black-tailed Praire Dogs

Black Tailed Prairie Dog

Prairie Dog (1)
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Sciuridae
Taxonomic Name: Cynomys ludovicianus

Range: Western U.S. from Canada, south to Mexico.
Habitat: Grassy rolling plains and plateaus.
Physical Characteristics: Head to body length is about 10- 13 in. and the tail ranges from 1.5 to 4.5 in. Weight ranges from 1.5 to 3 lbs. The fur is a golden brown color above and slightly lighter on the underside. The tail is somewhat flattened, and tipped with black. The legs are short and powerful. Their large eyes are located on the side of the head and they have short rounded ears.
Longevity: 4- 5 years in the wild and up to 11 years in captivity.
Social Structure: Gregarious; found in large underground colonies or "towns" that can contain thousands of individuals.
Active Time: Diurnal
Diet:    Wild - Low growing grasses, weeds, and herbs. Don't drink a lot - obtain their water from the plants they eat.
Zoo - Dog food, fruits, vegetables, and hay.
Behavior: They have a high degree of social organization. Their towns are divided into wards, and each ward consists of several "coteries" or family units. Each coterie is a discrete social unit containing an average of 2- 8 females that are defended by a single dominant male. If a town becomes too populated, the older adults will leave and start a new town. The burrows reach ground level by vertically ascending passages. The earth from the holes is built up around the entrance in a volcano-shaped cone that keeps surface water from running down the burrow as well as providing a vantage point to spot approaching predators. The owner of the burrow spends much time maintaining this cone, especially following rains. Underground tunnels connect to special-use rooms such as bedrooms, nurseries, latrines, entrances, exits, and "flood rooms" - a room dug into the ceiling at the bottom of a burrow. If the burrow fills with water, the flood room forms a pocket of air for waiting until the water drains away. All members of a coterie are socially integrated and display territorial defense toward outsiders. During the breeding season, females defend individual territories around their burrows. The bonds of social units are reinforced by such friendly activities as kissing, nuzzling, grooming, playing together, and many different vocal communications. The most prominent display is the "jump yip" which combines a specialized leap with vocalization, and which seems to be preliminary to territorial defense. When feeding, the adults take turns on sentry duty, while others continue their duties or eat. The sentry gives the alarm (warning bark) whereupon all dive below until the danger is over. During severe weather, they become dormant, but they are not a deep hibernator and may be seen above ground at times, even in the middle of winter.
Reproduction: Mating usually occurs in late winter or early spring. The females are monestrous and bear one litter per year. Gestation lasts between 28 and 32 days. The litters consts of 4 to 5 young, which are born in March or April. At birth, the young are blind, hairless, and weigh about a half oz. Their eyes are open at 33 to 37 days, at which time they are able to walk, run, eat green food, and "bark". They first appear above ground at approximately 6 weeks of age and are weaned shortly thereafter. The family units remain intact for almost another month, but the ties are gradually broken and the family disperses. Sexual maturity is reached in their second year.
Interesting Facts:
  • In the early 1900's there was a town in western Texas that had an area of 18,400 sq. miles (the size of Belgium) and contained about 400,000,000 prairie dogs.
  • Prairie dogs are not actually dogs, but a burrowing ground squirrel named for their barking call.
  • Their burrows not only provide them protection from prairie fires, coyotes, and hawks; but they also provide shelter for many other prairie wildlife species, including snakes, toads, insects, birds, and other small mammals.
  • Half the U.S. prairie dog population lives in South Dakota, with the second and third largest segments of the U.S. population inhabiting Mantana and Wyoming.
  • Prairie dogs are inextricably linked with the entire prairie grassland ecosystem. There is a significantly higher diversity of mammals and avian species on prairie dog colonies than on adjacent prairies. They also provide a food source for many species including black-footed ferrets, mountain plovers, burrowing owls, bobcats, badgers, and hawks.
  • The Sylvatic plague (a foreign disease) has played a part in the decline of prairie dog populations. It was first found in California ground squirrels in 1904. Spread by fleas, it has diffused accross the West. Prairie dogs appear to have little or no immunity to the disease, and once it appears in a colony, the entire praire dog population is often lost.
Relationship With Humans: They are often kept as pets. However, many farmers consider them pest animals and poison or shoot them. Since their historic high of 1.5 billion in the late 1800's, their populations have been on the decline and they are now protected in several parts of their range. This has been due to habitat loss, poison control, over hunting, and the Sylvatic plague. Between 1982 and 1992, chemical control was used on 1.2 million acres in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. In 1991 alone, 150,000 pounds of poisoned oats were produced and spread. The steep decline in prairie dog populations led to the near extinction of the black-footed ferret, who fed on these animals.