Prairie dogs, are an adorable sight in the grasslands of North America. With their curious eyes and bustling communities, they are full of character and charm. Contrary to their name, they aren’t related to canids but are herbivorous burrowing rodents. They belong to the genus ‘Cynomys‘, which is a member of the ‘Marmotini‘ tribe which includes other types of ground squirrels.
There are five different species of prairie dogs and while all similar, each species has its unique traits and habitats. They all share certain behaviours and roles in their ecosystem however.
These charming little rodents can be found across much of North America and Mexico. Most species can be found in the USA, two in Mexico and one in Canada and some have a much greater range than others. They are important in their ecosystems, and considered to be a keystone species.
Appearance & Characteristics of Prairie Dog
At first glance, prairie dogs might seem like any other rodent. They have a similar build to marmots for example, but a closer look reveals their distinct features.
They are sexually dimorphic but some species more than others. Across the species, males can range from between 5 to 30% bigger on average, than females. The white-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys leucurus) displays the largest variance in size between the sexes.
I’ll mention the rough sizes for individual species in a table below, but as an average, prairie dogs measure between 30 to 40 cm (12 to 16 inches) in length, from head to tail. They have a short tail and a stout body that usually weighs between 0.5 and 1.5 kilograms (1 to 3 pounds).
Their fur varies in shades of brown, providing them with camouflage against predators. I love the way they stand upright on their hind legs, expertly scanning their surroundings with sharp, alert eyes. Their small, rounded ears twitch at the slightest sound, always on the lookout for danger or the calls of their kin.
They get their name, not because they are related to dogs, but because they have a distinctive warning call similar to a dogs bark, that they can be heard vocalizing in their prairie habitats.
Distribution – Location and Habitat
The vast grasslands of North America are home to most of the five different species of prairie dogs, with two ranging as far south as northern Mexico. I’ve described the five species in the table and descriptions below:
|Species (Common Name)||Scientific Name||Location||Description/Appearance||Size||Conservation Status|
|Black-tailed Prairie Dog||Cynomys ludovicianus||From Saskatchewan to Mexico||Brownish fur with a black-tipped tail||Around 30-40 cm||Vulnerable|
|White-tailed Prairie Dog||Cynomys leucurus||Western Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana||Brown fur with a white-tipped tail||Around 30-40 cm||Stable|
|Gunnison’s Prairie Dog||Cynomys gunnisoni||Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico||Similar to black-tailed but smaller||Around 20-30 cm||Stable|
|Mexican Prairie Dog||Cynomys mexicanus||Northern Mexico||Darker fur, smaller size||Around 20-30 cm||Endangered|
|Utah Prairie Dog||Cynomys parvidens||Utah||Light brown fur, smallest size||Around 20 cm||Endangered|
Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)
Distribution: This species has the broadest range, stretching from southern Saskatchewan in Canada all the way down to northern Mexico. They are primarily found in the Great Plains region of the United States.
Habitat: Black-tailed prairie dogs prefer short-grass prairies and plateaus. They tend to choose areas with low-growing vegetation, which allows them to keep an eye out for any opportunistic predators. Their colonies or ‘towns’ can be found in flat to gently sloping areas, where they dig extensive burrow systems.
White-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys leucurus)
Distribution: Their range is more limited than the black-tailed species, primarily covering parts of western Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Montana.
Habitat: The white-tailed prairie dogs have a different preference to their black-tailed cousins, inhabiting areas with a mix of grasslands and shrublands. You might also find them at higher elevations, including montane and subalpine zones. Their burrows are quite often located near rocky outcrops or in areas with deep soil.
Gunnison’s Prairie Dog (Cynomys gunnisoni)
Distribution: This species is found in the Four Corners region, covering parts of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Habitat: Gunnison’s prairie dogs are residents of high-altitude grasslands and meadows. They prefer areas with deep, well-drained soil for their burrowing activities. These prairie dogs are also known to inhabit areas with a mix of grasses and shrubs. While their range is small compared to others, their populations are stable.
Mexican Prairie Dog (Cynomys mexicanus)
Distribution: As the name suggests, this species is native to Mexico, particularly in the specific northern states of Coahuila, Nuevo León, and San Luis Potosí.
Habitat: The Mexican prairie dog inhabits semi-arid grasslands. They prefer regions with deep, loamy soil, which is ideal for creating their burrow systems. Overgrazing and agricultural activities have threatened their preferred habitats, and this species is endangered.
Utah Prairie Dog (Cynomys parvidens)
Distribution: This species has a very restricted range, found only in the southern part of Utah.
Habitat: Utah prairie dogs prefer montane grasslands, often at elevations between 1,500 to 2,800 meters. They choose areas with well-drained soils for their burrowing activities. These prairie dogs are often found in valleys and flat to gently sloping terrains. They are an endangered species with active conservation efforts in place.
The Lifestyle & Behaviour of Prairie Dog
Prairie dogs are social animals, living in vast colonies known as ‘towns.’ These towns can span hundreds of acres and consist of numerous family groups, as many as 25, called coteries. A coterie typically comprises one male, several females, and their offspring. Each family lives in a specific ‘ward’ within the town, which are individual areas, divided by a make-shift wall or barrier.
Their social structure is intricate, with established hierarchies and roles. Communication is vital for prairie dogs. They have developed a series of high-pitched calls that convey various messages, from greetings to warnings about approaching predators. Observing a prairie dog town can be a fascinating experience. You can witness the bustling activity, playful interactions, and the ever-vigilant sentinels alerting others to potential threats with barks and growls.
Males will defend their territories fiercely and are also known to antagonise other males into fights when patrolling the edges of their territories. It’s a bit like ‘handbags at dawn’, with bluff runs, lots of ground scraping, staring and sniffing. When they start fighting though, it can be quite violent, and it can happen several times in a day. Females might also get involved, but if the aggressor is bigger, they will leave it to the males.
Diet & Nutrition of Prairie Dog
While prairie dogs might seem small, their appetite is anything but, and this is why they are seen as a pest by many farmers. As herbivores, their primary diet consists of grasses and seeds, which does vary by population depending on their habitat. They are known to eat insects too when needs must.
They don’t hunt but are expert foragers. With their sharp incisors, they snip off grass and plants, storing some in their burrows for leaner times. Across their range, some of their favourites include dandelions and buffalo grass, but they are also fond of different weeds, including tumbleweed. During certain seasons, they might also consume broadleaf forbs, diversifying their diet.
Their eating habits play a crucial role in shaping the vegetation of their habitat, ensuring a balance in the ecosystem. While they may damage crops, they also keep other less desirable vegetation at bay.
Predators & Threats to Prairie Dog
Prairie dogs are an important prey species and as such, have a host of natural predators, including several birds of prey such as hawks and eagles. Rattlesnakes are known to inhabit prairie dog burrows, where they lie in wait to ambush young or adult prairie dogs.
Badgers, with their powerful digging abilities, can invade prairie dog burrows in search of a meal. Coyotes and foxes, on the other hand, often stalk the peripheries of prairie dog towns, using their stealth to catch these rodents off-guard.
Their alert nature and communication skills often help them evade these threats, however predators are not the only thing they have to worry about.
Diseases like the bubonic plague have severely impacted their populations. Entire colonies can be wiped out once the disease takes hold, with the black-footed ferret, a primary predator of prairie dogs, also being adversely affected.
Human activities, such as agriculture and urban development are the biggest threat to the species. They have led to massive habitat loss, in some cases endangering the stability of the population.
Why are they a keystone species?
Prairie dogs are not just another rodent, and while they are seen as vermin or pests by many farmers, they are actually a keystone species. They play a pivotal role in their ecosystem. Their burrowing habits aerate the soil, promoting water absorption and nutrient cycling. Many animals, like the black-footed ferret, burrowing owl, and even snakes, rely on prairie dog burrows for homes. They are also an important prey species for many other animals in their environment.
Their grazing patterns influence the vegetation, ensuring a diverse plant life that benefits other herbivores. They are often seen as a pest because they will clear a lot of vegetation from around their burrow networks, and when this is in agricultural land, it can be quite destructive to crops.
Prairie Dog Reproduction
The cycle of reproduction and life for prairie dogs is a fascinating one. They mate once a year, usually in the early spring. They do this in the safety of their burrows, to avoid competition from other males, and being caught off guard by any opportunistic predators. One of the key indicators that they are ready to mate, is a call that follows a specific pattern. The mating call consists of up to 20 – 25 barks and there is a pause of a few seconds between each bark.
After a gestation period of about a month, females give birth to a litter of 3-8 pups. Prairie dogs give live births, making them viviparous. The mother does most of the heavy lifting in caring for the young family, and will do the defending too.
The young pups are nurtured in the safety of the burrows, emerging after about six weeks. By the time they reach five months, they are fully grown and ready to play their part in the community.
Lifespan of Prairie Dogs
In the wild, prairie dogs live an average of 3 to 4 years. However, in captivity, where they are safe from predators and diseases, they can live up to 8-10 years. Their life can be segmented into stages: from vulnerable pups to active juveniles and then to mature adults who contribute to the well-being of their large communities.
Population and Conservation
Of the 5 species of prairie dog, two are listed as species of ‘Least Concern’, one as ‘Vulnerable’ and two as ‘Endangered’ on the red list of endangered species published by the IUCN. While they are considered to be a keystone species and very important to their ecosystems, many farmers also see them as pests and take measures to remove and prevent them from their land.
As they compete more and more for habitat with the ever increasing presence of human settlement and agriculture, pressure is being exerted on the different species. They are also susceptible to health issues and there has been an on-off governmental ban on the trade and capture of these animals in the USA across the last three decades.
While central government don’t seem too concerned about the conservation of these animals, some local states continue with their efforts to conserve them. Their role as a prey species is critical to the survival of other species in their ecosystem, as well as the control of brush and invasive vegetation. So stable populations are important.
5 Fun Prairie Dog Facts for Kids
- Prairie dogs ‘kiss’ like humans, by touching their mouths together.
- They can jump straight up when excited.
- A prairie dog town can have thousands of residents!
- They have a special call just to say ‘hello’ to each other.
- When it’s too hot, they’ll lie flat on their bellies in the shade to cool down.