About Prairie Dogs
Artistic representation of a prairie dog colony.
All five of these species are now at a small fraction of their historical numbers
Prairie dogs are herbivorous members of the squirrel family. Prairie dogs earned their name from settlers traveling west who thought their chirping alert calls sounded similar to dogs barking. There are five different species of prairie dogs: the white-tailed, the Utah, the Gunnison, the Mexican and the black-tailed. All five of these species are now at a small fraction of their historical numbers. Currently, the Prairie Dog Coalition focuses on making scientific information available to advocates working to protect prairie dogs and general information to the media and general public for the four species of prairie dogs in the Western U.S.
Where do prairie dogs live?
Click on the colored boxes to learn about current status of each prairie dog species.
Prairie dogs live in Mexico, the United States and Canada, in the dry grassy areas of the western plains. The five species of prairie dogs prefer different habitats. The white-tailed, Gunnison's and Utah prairie dog prefer high deserts and mountain valleys. Because they live at higher altitude, each of theses species tend to hibernate. The white-tailed is the most common of the high ground species and can be found in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana. The Gunnison's prairie dog can be seen in the high, dry plains of the four corners area. This is where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet. The Utah prairie dog is the least common of all the high-ground prairie dogs. It lives in just a few places in the mountain valleys of central Utah.
Both black-tailed prairie dogs and Mexican prairie dogs live in the low, dry grasslands and do not hibernate. The black-tailed prairie dog is the largest and most numerous of all prairie dog species. It can be found in small patches of grasslands and prairies in Canada down through the western plains of the United States to Mexico. The Mexican prairie dog, the other species from non-mountain areas, is extremely rare. It lives only in a few places in Mexico. (*Much of the above information was taken from Prairie Dogs - a selection from the Our Wild World series by author Marybeth Lorbiecki.)
Prairie dogs live in complex networks of underground tunnels that generally have multiple openings to the surface above. Colonies are easily identified by the raised-burrow entrances that provide protection from the elements and enable the diminutive prairie dogs some extra height when watching for predators. The tunnels themselves contain separate "rooms" for sleeping, rearing young, storing food, and eliminating waste.
Prairie dogs are very social critters and live in closely knit family groups called "coteries". Coteries usually contain an adult male, one or more adult females, and their young offspring. These coteries are grouped together into wards (or neighborhoods) and several wards make up a colony or town. Although prairie dogs can be fiercely territorial about their coterie, they cooperate with surrounding families by acting as sentries or lookouts to warn each other of invading predators or other signs of danger.
What's all the barking about?
Prairie dogs have an amazingly complex system of communication that involves a variety of verbal utterances and behavioral displays. One of these, the "jump-yip" display, is a territorial call in which they stand up on their hind legs and throw their forefeet up in the air, emitting a two-note call. They also have a variety of pitched warning barks that signal different types of predators. Prairie dogs communicate through smell and touch, often greeting one another by touching each other's teeth (hence, the appearance of kissing). In fact, recent research indicates a high degree of sophistication in prairie dog communication. They can distinguish between people wearing different colored clothing and between people exhibiting threatening or non-threatening types of behavior. In addition, prairie dogs use sounds in different orders and at varying speeds, suggesting a grammatical component to their communication. These findings have led Con Slobodchikoff, a researcher studying prairie dog communication, to assert that they "have one of the most advanced forms of natural language known to science".
Why are prairie dogs important?
Aside from the argument that all life is precious, the prairie dog is a recognized keystone (or integral) species of the short -grass prairie ecosystem. They contribute to the lives of the other mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects of the prairie, by providing habitat and food. Abandoned burrows are frequently used as homes by burrowing owls, white-tailed rabbits, badgers, weasels, snakes, and even foxes. Prairie dogs' churning activities aerate the soil to allow for more water penetration, while their nitrogen-rich dung improves the quality of the soil and surrounding vegetation. As a prey base, the prairie dog supports a wide variety of species. The swift fox, the coyote, weasels, snakes, hawks, eagles, and the endangered black-footed ferret are just a few of the predators who rely on prairie dogs for food.
Do prairie dogs have any legal protection?
Most prairie dog species are offered no protections by the Unites States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). A few states with prairie dog habitat do post seasonal shooting closures on prairie dogs. The USFWS, it should be noted, has faced extreme pressure from farmers, ranchers, developers, and government officials to NOT offer prairie dogs' federal protection.