Prairie dog

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Prairie dogs

Prairie dog
Temporal range: Late Pliocene-Holocene[a]
Black-Tailed Prairie Dog.jpg
Black-tailed prairie dog at the
Smithsonian National Zoo Park in Washington, D.C.
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Sciuridae
Tribe: Marmotini
Genus: Cynomys
Rafinesque, 1817
Type species
Cynomys socialis[2]

Cynomys gunnisoni
Cynomys leucurus
Cynomys ludovicianus
Cynomys mexicanus
Cynomys parvidens

Prairie dogs (genus Cynomys) are

ground squirrels native to the grasslands of North America. Within the genus are five species: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison's, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs.[3] In Mexico, prairie dogs are found primarily in the northern states, which lie at the southern end of the Great Plains: northeastern Sonora, north and northeastern Chihuahua, northern Coahuila, northern Nuevo León, and northern Tamaulipas. In the United States, they range primarily to the west of the Mississippi River, though they have also been introduced in a few eastern locales. They are also found in the Canadian Prairies. Despite the name, they are not actually canines; prairie dogs, along with the marmots, chipmunks, and several other basal genera belong to the ground squirrels (tribe Marmotini), part of the larger squirrel family

Prairie dogs are considered a

red tailed hawk, American badger, and coyote. Other species, such as the golden-mantled ground squirrel, mountain plover, and the burrowing owl, also rely on prairie dog burrows for nesting areas. Grazing species, such as plains bison, pronghorn, and mule deer have shown a proclivity for grazing on the same land used by prairie dogs. Prairie dogs have some of the most complex systems of communication and social structures in the animal kingdom.[4]

The prairie dog



Prairie dogs 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.[5] The 1804 journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition note that in September 1804, they "discovered a Village of an animal the French Call the Prairie Dog".[6] Its genus, Cynomys, derives from the Greek for "dog mouse" (κυων kuōn, κυνος kunos – dog; μυς mus, μυός muos – mouse).[7]

The prairie dog is known by several indigenous names. The name wishtonwish was recorded by Lt. Zebulon Pike while on the Arkansas two years after Lewis and Clark's expedition.[8] In Lakota, the word is pispíza or pìspíza.[9][10]

Classification and first identification

The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) was first described by Lewis and Clark in 1804.[6] Lewis described it in more detail in 1806, calling it the "barking squirrel".[11]

Extant species

Image Common name Scientific name Distribution
Cynomys gunnisoni Attilly.jpg
Gunnison's prairie dog Cynomys gunnisoni Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico
White-Tailed Prairie Dog on Seedskadee NWR (24943085663).jpg
White-tailed prairie dog Cynomys leucurus Western Wyoming and western Colorado with small areas in eastern Utah and southern Montana.
Black-tailed prairie dog Cynomys ludovicianus Saskatchewan, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Mexican prairie dog.jpg
Mexican prairie dog Cynomys mexicanus Coahuila, Nuevo León, and San Luis Potosí
Cynomys parvidens (29259482624).jpg
Utah prairie dog Cynomys parvidens Utah


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). Sexual dimorphism in body mass in the prairie dog varies 105 to 136% between the sexes.[13] Among the species, black-tailed prairie dogs tend to be the least sexually dimorphic, and white-tailed prairie dogs tend to be the most sexually dimorphic. Sexual dimorphism peaks during weaning, when the females lose weight and the males start eating more, and is at its lowest when the females are pregnant, which is also when the males are tired from breeding.

Ecology and behavior


Prairie dogs are chiefly

cacti in addition to buffalo grass and blue grama. White-tailed prairie dogs have been observed to kill ground squirrels, a competing herbivore.[15][16]

Habitat and burrowing

Prairie dogs live mainly at altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 ft above sea level.[17] 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.[17] As prairie dogs live in areas prone to environmental threats, including hailstorms, blizzards, and floods, as well as drought and prairie fires, burrows provide important protection. Burrows help prairie dogs control their body temperature (thermoregulation) as they are 5–10 °C (41–50 °F) during the winter and 15–25 °C (59–77 °F) in the summer. Prairie dog tunnel systems channel rainwater into the water table which prevents runoff and erosion, and can also change the composition of the soil in a region by reversing soil compaction that can result from cattle grazing.

Prairie dog burrows are 5–10 m (16–33 ft) long and 2–3 m (6.6–9.8 ft) below the ground.[18] The entrance holes are generally 10–30 cm (3.9–11.8 in) in diameter.[18] Prairie dog burrows can have up to six entrances. Sometimes the entrances are simply flat holes in the ground, while at other times they are surrounded by mounds of soil either left as piles or hard packed.[18] Some mounds, known as dome craters, can be as high as 20–30 cm (7.9–11.8 in) high. Other mounds, known as rim craters, can be as high as 1 m (3 ft 3 in).[18] Dome craters and rim craters serve as observation posts used by the animals to watch for predators. They also protect the burrows from flooding. The holes also possibly provide ventilation as the air enters through the dome crater and leaves through the rim crater, causing a breeze though the burrow.[18] Prairie dog burrows contain chambers to provide certain functions. They have nursery chambers for their young, chambers for night, and chambers for the winter. They also contain air chambers that may function to protect the burrow from flooding[17] and a listening post for predators. When hiding from predators, prairie dogs use less-deep chambers that are usually one meter (3 ft 3 in) below the surface.[18] Nursery chambers tend to be deeper, being two to three meters (6 ft 7 in to 9 ft 10 in) below the surface.[18]

Social organization and spacing

Highly social, prairie dogs live in large colonies or "towns" and collections of prairie dog families that can span hundreds of acres. The prairie dog family groups are the most basic units of its society.[18] Members of a family group inhabit the same territory.[13] Family groups of black-tailed and Mexican prairie dogs are called "coteries", while "clans" is used to describe family groups of white-tailed, Gunnison’s, and Utah prairie dogs.[13] Although these two family groups are similar, coteries tend to be more closely knit than clans.[19] Members of a family group interact through oral contact or "kissing" and grooming one another.[17][18] They do not perform these behaviors with prairie dogs from other family groups.[18]

A prairie dog town may contain 15–26 family groups.[18] There may also be subgroups within a town, called "wards", which are separated by a physical barrier. Family groups exist within these wards. Most prairie dog family groups are made up of one adult breeding male, two to three adult females and one to two male offspring and one to two female offspring. Females remain in their natal groups for life and are thus the source of stability in the groups.[18] Males leave their natal groups when they mature to find another family group to defend and breed in. Some family groups contain more breeding females than one male can control, so have more than one breeding adult male in them. Among these multiple-male groups, some may contain males that have friendly relationships, but the majority contain males that have largely antagonistic relationships. In the former, the males tend to be related, while in the latter, they tend not to be related. Two to three groups of females may be controlled by one male. However, among these female groups, there are no friendly relations.[18]

The average prairie dog territory takes up 0.05–1.01 hectares (0.12–2.50 acres). Territories have well-established borders that coincide with physical barriers such as rocks and trees.[18] The resident male of a territory defends it and antagonistic behavior will occur between two males of different families to defend their territories. These interactions may happen 20 times per day and last five minutes. When two prairie dogs encounter each other at the edges of their territories, they will start staring, make bluff charges, flare their tails, chatter their teeth, and sniff each other's perianal scent glands. When fighting, prairie dogs will bite, kick and ram each other.[18] If their competitor is around their size or smaller, the females will participate in fighting. Otherwise, if a competitor is sighted, the females signal for the resident male.

Reproduction and parenting

Prairie dog copulation occurs in the burrows, and this reduces the risk of interruption by a competing male. They are also at less risk of predation. Behaviors that signal that a female is in

estrus include underground consorting, self-licking of genitals, dust-bathing, and late entrances into the burrow at night.[20] The licking of genitals may protect against sexually transmitted diseases and genital infections,[20] while dust-bathing may protect against fleas and other parasites. Prairie dogs also have a mating call which consists of a set of 2 to 25 barks with a 3- to 15-second pause between each one.[20] Females may try to increase their reproduction success by mating with males outside their family groups. When copulation is over, the male is no longer interested in the female sexually, but will prevent other males from mating with her by inserting copulatory plugs.[20]

For black-tailed prairie dogs, the resident male of the family group fathers all the offspring.[21] Multiple paternity in litters seems to be more common in Utah and Gunnison’s prairie dogs.[19] Mother prairie dogs do most of the care for the young. In addition to nursing the young, the mother also defends the nursery chamber and collects grass for the nest. Males play their part by defending the territories and maintaining the burrows.[18] The young spend their first six weeks below the ground being nursed.[17] They are then weaned and begin to surface from the burrow. By five months, they are fully grown.[17] The subject of cooperative breeding in prairie dogs has been debated among biologists. Some argue prairie dogs will defend and feed young that are not theirs,[22] and it seems young will sleep in a nursery chamber with other mothers; since most nursing occurs at night, this may be a case of communal nursing.[18] In the case of the latter, others suggest communal nursing occurs only when mothers mistake another female's young for their own. Infanticide is known to occur in prairie dogs. Males which take over a family group will kill the offspring of the previous male.[18] This causes the mother to go into estrus sooner.[18] However, most infanticide is done by close relatives.[18] Lactating females will kill the offspring of a related female both to decrease competition for the female’s offspring and for increased foraging area due to a decrease in territorial defense by the victimized mother. Supporters of the theory that prairie dogs are communal breeders state that another reason for this type of infanticide is so that the female can get a possible helper. With their own offspring gone, the victimized mother may help raise the young of other females.

Anti-predator calls

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.[23] 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. These have been described as a form of grammar. According to Slobodchikoff, these calls, with their individuality in response to a specific predator, imply that prairie dogs have highly developed cognitive abilities.[23] He also writes that prairie dogs have calls for things that are not predators to them. This is cited as evidence that the animals have a very descriptive language and have calls for any potential threat.[23]

Alarm response behavior varies according to the type of predator announced. If the alarm indicates a hawk diving toward the colony, all the prairie dogs in its flight path dive into their holes, while those outside the flight path stand and watch. If the alarm is for a human, all members of the colony immediately rush inside the burrows. For coyotes, the prairie dogs move to the entrance of a burrow and stand outside the entrance, observing the coyote, while those prairie dogs that were inside the burrows will come out to stand and watch as well.

A black-tailed prairie dog forages above ground for grasses and leaves.

There is debate over whether the alarm calling of prairie dogs is selfish or altruistic. It is possible that prairie dogs alert others to the presence of a predator so they can protect themselves. However, it is also possible that the calls are meant to cause confusion and panic in the groups and cause the others to be more conspicuous to the predator than the caller. Studies of black-tailed prairie dogs suggest that alarm-calling is a form of kin selection, as a prairie dog’s call alerts both offspring and nondescended kin, such as cousins, nephews and nieces.[18] Prairie dogs with kin close by called more often than those that did not have kin nearby. In addition, the caller may be trying to make itself more noticeable to the predator.[18] Predators, though, seem to have difficulty determining which prairie dog is making the call due to its "ventriloquistic" nature.[18]

Perhaps the most striking of prairie dog communications is the territorial call or "jump-yip" display of the black-tailed prairie dog.[25] A black-tailed prairie dog will stretch the length of its body vertically and throw its forefeet into the air while making a call. A jump-yip from one prairie dog causes others nearby to do the same.[26]

Conservation status

red tailed hawk, American badger, coyote and ferruginous hawk. Other species, such as the golden-mantled ground squirrel, mountain plover, and the burrowing owl, also rely on prairie dog burrows for nesting areas. Even grazing species, such as plains bison, pronghorn, and mule deer have shown a proclivity for grazing on the same land used by prairie dogs.[27]

Nevertheless, prairie dogs are often identified as pests and exterminated from agricultural properties because they are capable of damaging crops, as they clear the immediate area around their burrows of most vegetation.[28]

Skeleton of a black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) with a prairie dog skeleton, articulated to show the predator-prey relationship between them. (Museum of Osteology

As a result, prairie dog habitat has been affected by direct removal by farmers, as well as the more obvious encroachment of urban development, which has greatly reduced their populations. The removal of prairie dogs "causes undesirable spread of brush", the costs of which to livestock range may outweigh the benefits of removal.[29] Black-tailed prairie dogs comprise the largest remaining community.[30] In spite of human encroachment, prairie dogs have adapted, continuing to dig burrows in open areas of western cities.[31]

One common concern which led to the widespread extermination of prairie dog colonies was that their digging activities could injure horses[32] by fracturing their limbs. However, according to writer Fred Durso, Jr., of E Magazine, "after years of asking ranchers this question, we have found not one example."[33] Another concern is their susceptibility to bubonic plague.[34] As of July 2016 the

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to distribute an oral vaccine it had developed by unmanned aircraft or drones.[35]

In captivity

Pet prairie dogs can be leash trained

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 burrows each spring, as young pups, with a large vacuum device.[36] They can be difficult to breed in captivity,[37] but breed well in zoos. Removing them from the wild was a far more common method of supplying the market demand.[38]

They can be difficult pets to care for, requiring regular attention and a very specific diet of grasses and hay. Each year, they go into a period called rut that can last for several months, in which their personalities can drastically change, often becoming defensive or even aggressive. Despite their needs, prairie dogs are very social animals and come to seem as though they treat humans as members of their colony.

In mid-2003, due to cross-contamination at a Madison, Wisconsin-area pet swap from an unquarantined Gambian pouched rat imported from Ghana, several prairie dogs in captivity acquired monkeypox, and subsequently a few humans were also infected. This led the CDC and FDA to issue a joint order banning the sale, trade, and transport within the United States of prairie dogs (with a few exceptions).[39] The disease was never introduced to any wild populations. The European Union also banned importation of prairie dogs in response.[40]

All Cynomys species are classed as a "prohibited new organism" under New Zealand's Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, preventing it from being imported into the country.[41]

Prairie dogs are also very susceptible to bubonic plague, and many wild colonies have been wiped out by it.[42][43][44][45] Also, in 2002, a large group of prairie dogs in captivity in Texas were found to have contracted tularemia.[46] The prairie dog ban is frequently cited by the CDC as a successful response to the threat of zoonosis.[47]

Prairie dogs that were in captivity at the time of the ban in 2003 were allowed to be kept under a grandfather clause, but were not to be bought, traded, or sold, and transport was permitted only to and from a veterinarian under quarantine procedures.[48]

On 8 September 2008, the FDA and CDC rescinded the ban, making it once again legal to capture, sell, and transport prairie dogs.[49] Although the federal ban has been lifted, several states still have in place their own ban on prairie dogs.[50]

The European Union has not lifted its ban on imports from the U.S. of animals captured in the wild. Major European Prairie Dog Associations, such as the Italian Associazione Italiana Cani della Prateria (AICDP), remain against import from the United States, due to the high death rate of wild captures.[51][52] Several zoos in Europe have stable prairie dog colonies that generate enough surplus pups to saturate the EU internal demand, and several associations help owners to give adoption to captive-born animals.[53]

Prairie dogs in captivity may live up to ten years.[54]

Literary descriptions

In culture

In companies that use large numbers of

vulgar slang to refer to one who is on the verge of defecating (often involuntarily), with the implication that fecal matter has already begun partially exiting the anus.[59]

The Amarillo Sod Poodles, a minor league baseball team, use a nickname for prairie dogs as their cognomen.

See also


  1. ^ Fossils of genus Cynomys have been dated to as far back as the late Blancan and as far back as the early Irvingtonian for both black- and white-tailed prairie dogs, but fossils of prairie dogs are scarce prior to the late Irvingtonian.[1]


  1. ^ Goodwin, Thomas H. (23 February 1995). "Pliocene-Pleistocene Biogeographic History of Prairie Dogs, Genus Cynomys (Sciuridae)". Journal of Mammalogy. 76 (1): 100–122 – via Oxford Academic.
  2. OCLC 62265494
  3. ^ "Basic Facts About Prairie Dogs". Defenders of Wildlife. 15 March 2012. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  4. JSTOR 2424208
    – via JSTOR.
  5. ^ prairie. Online Etymology Dictionary
  6. ^ a b "Journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, "7th September Friday 1804. a verry Cold morning"". Archived from the original on 1 February 2009. Retrieved 9 February 2009.
  7. .
  8. .
  9. ^ Ingham, Bruce (2013). English-Lakota Dictionary. Routledge. p. 188.
  10. ^ Karol, Joseph S.; Rozman, Stephen L. (1974). Everyday Lakota: An English-Sioux Dictionary for Beginners. Rosebud Educational Society. p. 55.
  11. ^ "Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Tuesday July 1st 1806". Archived from the original on 1 February 2009. Retrieved 9 February 2009.
  12. ^ Basic Biology (2015). "Rodents".
  13. ^ .
  14. ^ a b Long, K. (2002) Prairie Dogs: A Wildlife Handbook, Boulder, CO: Johnson Books.
  15. PMID 27009223
  16. ^ Irwin, Aisling (23 March 2016). "Cute prairie dogs are serial killers savaging ground squirrels". New Scientist. Retrieved 26 March 2016.
  17. ^ a b c d e f Chance, G.E. (1976). "Wonders of Prairie Dogs", New York, NY: Dodd, Mead, and Company.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Hoogland, J.L. (1995) The Black- tailed Prairie Dog: Social Life of a Burrowing Mammal, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  19. ^
    doi:10.1644/BRB-109.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link
  20. ^ .
  21. .
  22. .
  23. ^ a b c d Slobodchikoff, C. N. (2002) "Cognition and Communication in Prairie Dogs", In: The Cognitive Animal (pp. 257–264), M. Beckoff, C. Allen, and G. M. Burghardt (eds) Cambridge: A Bradford Book.
  24. ^ "Cognition and Communication in Prairie Dogs", C.N Slobodchikoff
  25. .
  26. .
  27. ^ Associated Species Archived 10 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine. Prairie Dog Coalition. Retrieved on 2013-01-04.
  28. S2CID 53174059
  29. ^ "Mammals of Texas: Black-tailed Prairie Dog". Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  30. ^ Mulhern, Daniel W.; Knowles, Craig J. (17 August 1995). "Black-tailed prairie dog status and future conservation planning" (PDF). In Uresk, Daniel W.; Schenbeck, Greg L.; O'Rourke, James T. (eds.). Conserving biodiversity on native rangelands: symposium proceedings. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. pp. 19–29. Gen. Tech. Rep. RM-GTR-298. Retrieved 6 January 2017.
  31. ^ "Public, mayor react to prairie dog poisoning at Elmer Thomas Park". KSWO Lawton. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  32. ^ "The Diary of Virginia D. (Jones-Harlan) Barr b. 1866". 22 May 1940. Archived from the original on 31 January 2009. Retrieved 9 February 2009.
  33. ^ Motavalli, Jim; Durso, Fred Jr. (2 July 2004). "Open Season on "Varmints" For Saving Endangered Prairie Dogs, It's the Eleventh Hour". E–The Environmental Magazine. 15 (4).
  34. ^ "Prairie Dogs". DesertUSA. Retrieved 9 February 2009.
  35. ^ McCollister, Matthew; Matchett, Randy (31 March 2016). "Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems to Deliver Prairie Dog Sylvatic Plague Vaccination" (PDF). Environmental Assessment. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. p. 9. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  36. ^ "CNN: What's that giant sucking sound on prairie?". 16 December 1996. Retrieved 10 October 2009.
  37. PMID 15145390
  38. .
  39. ^ "CDC: Questions & Answers About Monkey Pox". Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  40. ^ "Born Free: EU bans rodent imports following monkeypox outbreak". June 2003. Archived from the original on 1 May 2006. Retrieved 13 October 2011.
  41. ^ Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 2003 – Schedule 2 Prohibited new organisms, New Zealand Government, retrieved 26 January 2012
  42. ^ "Plague and Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs". U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 23 March 1999.
  43. ^ "Biologist Studies Plague and Prairie Dogs". California State University. Archived from the original on 10 February 2008.
  44. ^ Robbins, Jim (18 April 2006). "Endangered, Rescued, Now in Trouble Again". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  45. .
  46. ^ "AVMA: Tularemia Outbreak Identified In Pet Prairie Dogs". Archived from the original on 2 April 2006. Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  47. ^ "Monkeypox-Outbreak: How was the outbreak contained?". Retrieved 6 January 2017.
  48. ^ "CDC: Notice of Embargo… of certain rodents and Prairie dogs issued 06/18/2003". 18 June 2003. Retrieved 6 January 2017.
  49. ^ Federal Register / Vol. 73, No. 174 Archived 25 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine. (PDF) . Retrieved on 2013-01-04.
  50. ^ "Born Free: Summary of State Laws Relating to Private Possession of Exotic Animals". Retrieved 6 January 2017.
  51. ^ "Untitled Document".
  52. ^ "Cane della prateria".
  53. ^ " Prairie Dogs". Retrieved 6 January 2017.
  54. . Retrieved 6 January 2017.
  55. ^ Kendall, Texan Santa Fé Expedition, i, p. 192.
  56. ^ Gregg, Josiah." Gregg's Commerce of the prairies: or, The journal of a Santa Fé trader, 1831. A. H. Clark, 1905. Vol.2, p. 277.
  57. ^ "Definition of prairie-dogging |". Retrieved 29 August 2022.
  58. ^ "Definition of 'prairie-dogging'". Collins Dictionary (Dictionary). Collins. Retrieved 29 August 2022.
  59. ^ "Farlex Dictionary of Idioms". The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Farlex Inc. Retrieved 29 August 2022.

External links