Written by: Theodore G. Manno (PhD student, Auburn University)
Photography by: Elaine Miller Bond (Wildlife Photographer/Writer: http://elainebond.home.comcast.net)
Lucky Dog - April is an exciting month for Utah prairie dogs. Mothers build nests in their natal burrows to prepare for the impending birth of their litter. Spring is also the first opportunity to feed on rich grasses and forbs after hibernation (or intermittent activity) during the winter and an arduous breeding season that usually takes place on snow-covered ground. Cloverleaf is among the favorite foods of hungry prairie dogs that have survived the year’s roughest season.
A Kiss Isn’t Just A Kiss - Who are you? For a prairie dog, identification of kin is learned early in development, and “who is who” is maintained constantly through kisses and sniffs. Cooperation among kin in a coterie or clan leads to improved fitness for all of the helping individuals.
Watchdogs - Prairie dogs are food for myriad predators, including weasels, ferrets, hawks, coyotes, and foxes. To survive, prairie dogs have evolved a complicated antipredator system. Constantly alert of predators, prairie dogs spend about one-third of their time in vigilant postures watching for danger. Amazingly, predators are not the only reason that prairie dogs are vigilant. During breeding season, reproductive animals watch for other prairie dogs that might usurp their breeding areas. In highly infanticidal black-tailed prairie dogs, females also spend a great deal of time watching for possible killers.
Washing Up - In an example of cooperation, prairie dogs in the same coterie remove ectoparasites, like fleas, by allogrooming. Individuals in a social species, such as prairie dogs, are more likely to contract diseases and ectoparasites than those of solitary species. In fact, disease can wipe out entire colonies of prairie dogs — fast. The most notable example is bubonic plague. This devastating disease arrived in North America unnaturally via fleas on animals delivered from European ships. Despite the disease-prevention behaviors of prairie dogs, plague continues to be a major source of mortality.
The Scream - Prairie dogs vocalize in a variety of ways. Several vocalizations are given from burrow mounds and function to warn kin of impending danger from predators. A prairie dog will continue calling — even as a predator approaches — until finally dropping into a burrow. Another notable vocalization is the "mating call," given by males before copulation. It is believed mating calls may announce a male’s competitive status or attract estrus females.
Doggin' It - This title for D.E. Petzal’s 1993 Field and Stream article is applicable to this “dog tired” prairie dog mother-to-be, who is lugging tough plant material to her natal burrow to construct a nest. Prairie dog females collect nesting material during pregnancy in preparation for the birth of their litter about 4 weeks later.
Prairie Dogs in the Mist - The work of preeminent biologists like Diane Fossey taught people about social behavior in animals that are close relatives of humans. Because prairie dogs are members of the rodent order (Rodentia), their wide-ranging social behaviors are often overlooked by non-biologists. Social behaviors like kissing are learned and practiced by prairie dog young from the time of their first emergence from the natal burrow. All members of the coterie or clan interact with young, and in some instances, mothers within the same coterie or clan do not seem to distinguish between their young. The prime example of this phenomenon is communal nursing, when a mother nurses all young in the coterie, regardless of maternity.
Doggie Style - Most prairie dog litters have between 1 and 7 individuals. Young are born blind, hairless, and helpless in the natal burrow. After about 5 weeks of lactating, the young of the year slowly emerge from their natal burrow for their first look at the aboveground world. Often confused for a few days, they disperse farther from the natal burrow each day. By week 2 aboveground, they are weaned and foraging away from the burrow. These young prairie dogs will have to learn how to avoid predators, forage, and recognize kin very fast. The ecological role of prairie dogs — a major prey source on the prairie — is seldom more apparent than in the young. For some prairie dog species, an excellent survival rate of young to the next year is 50%.
Attack - Goshawks are among the many predators of prairie dogs. The victim here was a yearling breeding male (bearing field markings for research) who had not yet conquered a clan of females and was jockeying for territory. He had emigrated from another colony for unknown reasons and was attempting to breed. It is commonly thought that predators of prairie dogs only target individuals that are young, old, weak, or sick. But this is not always true. Recent immigrants to a colony that are not familiar with the best routes for escape are often victims. Distracted by the search for estrus females, adult males can fall victim during mating season. Unable to run fast, pregnant females can also become prey for predators.
Duel - Competition for mates can be fierce in prairie dog colonies. A sole male typically mates with all of the females in a coterie or clan. Males achieve this position by emerging victoriously after a series of territorial disputes and fights with other males. More “fit” males typically are able to copulate with more females, allowing them to father many young, transmitting his genes to future generations. Sometimes, fights are so fierce that individuals soar several feet in the air during a frenzy of aggression.
The Angry Prairie Dog - Prairie dogs have varied reactions to humans. This breeding male Utah prairie dog, sporting a distinctive marker for study, did not appear enthralled to have his picture taken.
Roadkill - The unfortunate collision between development of the prairie and the needs of nature. Slowing down saves human life and wildlife.
American Compromise - — There’s room on the range for compromise between multiple land uses and all creatures great and small.