Black Tailed Prairie Dog
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Black-tailed prairie dog is a rodent with a complex social structure similar in many ways to our own. Regarded as a pest by humans, it has been completely wiped out in much of its range. The black-tailed prairie dog is a stocky, short tailed ground squirrel. It has yellowish gray fur with lighter underparts and a slightly flattened black-tipped tail.
Habits: The social structure of the prairie dog is similar to that of humans. It lives in a town, which, before the species was reduced, could cover several square miles. Each town is divided into wards, and each ward is divided into coteries of about an acre each. A coterie usually has one adult male, three adult females, and several young who all live in a series of underground burrows. It is a strong family unit that keeps to its own territory and defends it against neighboring coteries. Coterie members advertise the boundaries of their territory by rearing up on their hind legs, pointing their heads to the sky, and giving a series of distinctive calls.
The prairie dog maintains its social structure with a ritual of kisses. When a prairie dog is approached by another while guarding its boundaries, both will crawl toward each other on their bellies. Once they are nose to nose, they will bare their teeth and kiss. If the two are strangers, one retreats to its own territory or a fight breaks out. If they are friends, they stay together, grooming each other as a way of cementing the friendship. Poking out of its burrow, a prairie dog watches for predators. Standing on hind legs with its head thrown back, a prairie dog gives a loud barking call.
Food and Feeding: the prairie dog feeds on grasses and any other plants found on the prairie. Even without the burrow markings, it would be easy to spot a prairie dog town by looking at the surrounding vegetation: All the tall plants have been eaten away. Their removal leaves predators nowhere to hide and enables the prairie dog to keep a good lookout. In place of the plants, fast growing plants with many seeds spring up, providing the prairie dog with a constant food supply. The prairie dog seems to control its weight by regurgitating its food once it has regained sufficient body fat after the winter. A prairie dog grips a dandelion in its tiny paws.
Breeding: Compared to many other rodents, the prairie dog reproduces slowly. It has a litter only once a year, in March, April, or May. The litter usually contains about four pups, which remain in the underground burrows for seven weeks while they are nursing. With most mammals it is the young that leave the family when they grow up, but with prairie dogs it is the parents that leave when the young have grown. As the pups are growing, the adults dig new burrows at the edge of the town. They move into these “suburbs” once the pups can care for themselves. In this way the population is redistributed. A female will look after and nurse any pup in the coterie, even if it is not hers.
Length: Head and body, 11-13 in.
Tail: 3-4 in.
Weight: 2-3 lb.
Mating: January to April
Gestation: 28-32 days
No. of young: 3-5; rarely 8
Habit: Lives in coteries (groups) of up to 20 members
Calls: Chattering, high pitched scream; warning bark
Diet: Grasses and other plants, including crops such as alfalfa and corn
Lifespan: Up to 8 years in captivity
Related Species: There are 5 species of prairie dog. They all
look very similar, except for the white tailed species, Cynomys gunnisoni.
Distribution: Found on North American prairies, from the Dakotas to Texas. Also found in northern Mexico.
Conservation: Most U.S. prairies have been converted to farmland, which leaves no room for the prairie dog. In Kansas prairie dog towns once occupied an area of almost 2.5 million acres, which is now reduced to 37,000 acres.
The Prairie Dog Coterie:
Burrows: Interconnected series of tunnels and chambers.
Adult male: While other members of the coterie feed, at least one member acts as a lookout. It rears up on its hind legs and barks skyward to warn of approaching danger.
Burrow entrance: Surrounded by a cone of soil 1 to 2 feet high and up to 6 feet across, which serves as a lookout post and protects against floods.
Nest: About 4 pups in a litter. They are nursed by the female for up to 7 weeks.
Did You Know:
In 1905 the prairie dog population in Texas was estimated at 800 million.
By the 1970s it was less than 2.25 million as a result of the loss of prairie land to farming.
Prairie dog burrows may also be used by insects, reptiles, rabbits, mice, and other creatures.