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prairie dog

prairie dog, short-tailed, ground-living rodent, genus Cynomys, of the squirrel family, closely related to the ground squirrels, chipmunks, and marmots. There are several species, found in the W United States and N Mexico. Prairie dogs, named for their barking cries, are 12 to 15 in. (30 to 36 cm) long, including the 1- to 4-in. (2.5 to 10 cm) tail, and have short, coarse, buff-colored fur. The black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicianus, is found on the Great Plains. Members of this species live in connecting burrows, forming colonies, or "towns," which may extend many miles and include thousands of individuals. The entrances of the burrows are surrounded by cone-shaped mounds, which serve to keep out rainwater; the entrance shafts drop straight down for several feet. Prairie dogs spend much time maintaining the mounds by tamping down damp earth. They often sit upright on their haunches in rows, one animal on each mound; this behavior has given them the name "picket pins" in some regions. At any sign of danger the animals give a warning cry and duck down into the burrows. Rattlesnakes and burrowing owls sometimes live in the burrows and prey on young prairie dogs. Three species of white-tailed prairie dogs inhabit open or brushy valleys of the Rocky Mts; their burrows are usually less extensive than those of the black-tailed species. Prairie dogs feed mainly on grasses, but also eat insects; they hibernate in winter. Prairie dog towns were formerly much more common and extensive than now; some towns on the plains encompassed millions of individuals. Ranchers regard the animals as competitors for grazing lands and have destroyed them in large numbers. Prairie dogs are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Rodentia, family Sciuridae.

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prairie dog

prairie dog Squirrel-like rodent of w North America, named after its barking cry. It has a short tail and grizzled brown to buff fur. Active by day, it feeds on plants and insects, and lives in communal burrows interconnected to form colonies. Length: 30cm (12in). Genus Cynomys. See also ground squirrel

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prairie dog

prai·rie dog • n. a gregarious ground squirrel (genus Cynomys) that lives in interconnected burrows that may cover many acres. It is native to the grasslands of North America.

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prairie dog

prairie dog (Cynomis) See SCIURIDAE.

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Cynomys

Cynomys (prairie dog) See SCIURIDAE.

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Prairie Dog

Prairie Dog

Biology of prairie dogs

Species of prairie dogs

Resources

Prairie dogs, or barking squirrels, are ground-dwelling herbivores in the genus Cynomys, inthesquirrel family Sciuridae, order Rodentia. Prairie dogs are closely related to the ground squirrels, gophers, and marmots. They are widespread and familiar animals of the open, arid prairies, grasslands, and some agricultural landscapes of the western regions of North America.

Biology of prairie dogs

Prairie dogs have a stout body, with a narrow, pointed head, very short ears, short legs and tail, and strong digging claws on their fingers. Their fur is short but thick, and is colored yellowish or light brown. Although they can run quickly, prairie dogs do not wander far from the protection of their burrows.

Prairie dogs dig their burrows and grass-lined dens in well-drained soils. The surface entrance to the burrow is surrounded by a conical mound of excavated earth, which is designed to prevent rainwater from draining into the burrow. Nearby vegetation is kept well clipped, to provide a wide field of view for the detection of predators.

Prairie dogs are highly social animals, living in burrow complexes known as towns. Prairie dog towns can contain thousands of individuals, at a density as great as about 75 animals per hectare. In the past, when prairie dogs were more abundant, some of their more extensive towns may have contained millions of animals.

The social structure within prairie dog towns is determined by a dominance hierarchy, in which defended areas are controlled by mature, territory-holding males. The territory of these males is occupied by a harem of one to four breeding females, plus their pre-reproductive off-spring of the previous several years. These animals join the dominant male in an integrated defense of the groups territory, in a local social subgroup called a coterie. When female prairie dogs become sexually mature at about three years of age, they may be allowed to remain in their natal coterie. However, the male animals are always driven away when they mature, and they must then engage in a high-risk wandering, searching for an opportunity to establish their own coterie.

Prairie dogs are mostly herbivorous, feeding during the day on the tissues of many species of herbaceous plants. They also eat insects, such as grasshoppers, when they are readily available. The grazing activities of prairie dogs can be intense in the vicinity of their

towns, and this greatly alters the character of the vegetation.

Prairie dogs often sit upright and survey their surroundings for potential dangers. If an imminent threat is observed, these animals quickly scurry underground. If only a potential threat is perceived, the prairie dog emits a sharp bark to warn others of the possible danger. This action heightens the state of awareness of the entire colony, and the movements of the marauding coyote, badger, hawk, rattlesnake, or person are closely monitored. There are specific alarm calls for ground-based and aerial predators, and there is also an all-clear signal.

Prairie dogs gain weight through the summer and autumn, and they are noticeably fat and heavy at the onset of winter. Prairie dogs are not true hibernators, entering instead into deep, long sleeps in their hay-lined dens. These intense snoozes are occasionally interrupted for feeding and toiletry. On warm, sunny days the prairie dogs may interrupt their sleepy inactivity, and emerge to the surface to feed and stretch.

Many predators hunt prairie dogs, making these animals an important element of the food web of the prairies. In addition, abandoned burrows of prairie dogs are used by many other types of animals that do not dig their own burrows, for example, burrowing owls (Speotyto cunicularia ).

Prairie dogs are often perceived to be agricultural pests, because they can consume large quantities of forage, and thereby compete with livestock. Prairie dogs may also directly consume crops, and when they are abundant they can cause significant damage. In addition, the excavations of prairie dogs can be hazardous to unwary livestock, who can step into an access hole, or cause an underground tunnel to collapse under their weight, and perhaps break one of their legs.

KEY TERMS

Coterie The local, territory-holding, social group of prairie dogs, consisting of a mature male, a harem of one to four breeding females, and their young offspring.

Herbivore An animal that only eats plant foods.

For these reasons, prairie dogs have been relentlessly persecuted by humans, mostly through poisoning campaigns. Regrettably, this means that very few towns of prairie dogs continue to flourish. The great declines in the abundance of prairie dogs has had substantial, secondary consequences for the many predators that feed on these animals, including endangered species such as the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes ) and burrowing owl.

Species of prairie dogs

The most common and widespread of the five species of prairie dog is the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus ), occuring in dry, upland prairies from southern Saskatchewan to northern Mexico. The pelage of the black-tailed prairie dog is yellowish brown, except for the dark last third of their tail. The closely related Mexican prairie dog (C. mexicanus ) occurs in a small area of northern Mexico, and has about one-half of its tail colored black.

The white-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys leucurus ) occurs in prairies and grasslands of high-elevation, upland plateaus in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. This species is rather similar in coloration to the black-tailed prairie dog, but it utilizes different habitats, and it has a white tip to its tail. The closely related Gunnisons prairie dog (C. gunnisoni ) of Colorado and New Mexico, and the Utah prairie dog (C. parvidens ) of Utah have relatively restricted distributions, and they may in fact be subspecies of the white-tailed prairie dog.

See also Rodents.

Resources

BOOKS

Banfield, A.W.F. The Mammals of Canada. Toronto: Ont. University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Hall, E.R. The Mammals of North America. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1981.

Hoogland, J.L. The Black-tailed Prairie Dog: Social Life of a Burrowing Mammal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Nowak, R.M., ed. Walkers Mammals of the World. 6th ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Wilson, D.E., and D. Reeder. Mammal Species of the World. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2005.

Bill Freedman

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Prairie Dog

Prairie dog

Prairie dogs, or barking squirrels , are ground-dwelling herbivores in the genus Cynomys, in the squirrel family Sciuridae, order Rodentia. Prairie dogs are closely related to the ground squirrels, gophers , and marmots . Prairie dogs are widespread and familiar animals of the open, arid prairies, grasslands , and some agricultural landscapes of the western regions of North America .


Biology of prairie dogs

Prairie dogs have a stout body, with a narrow, pointed head, very short ears, short legs and tail, and strong digging claws on their fingers. Their fur is short but thick, and is colored yellowish or light brown. Although they can run quickly, prairie dogs do not wander far from the protection of their burrows.

Prairie dogs dig their burrows and grass-lined dens in well-drained soils. The surface entrance to the burrow is surrounded by a conical mound of excavated earth , which is designed to prevent rainwater from draining into the burrow. Nearby vegetation is kept well clipped, to provide a wide field of view for the detection of predators.

Prairie dogs are highly social animals, living in burrow complexes known as towns. Prairie dog towns can contain thousands of individuals, at a density as great as about 75 animals per hectare. In the past, when prairie dogs were more abundant, some of their more extensive towns may have contained millions of animals.

The social structure within prairie dog towns is determined by a dominance hierarchy, in which defended areas are controlled by mature, territory-holding males. The territory of these males is occupied by a harem of 1-4 breeding females, plus their pre-reproductive offspring of the previous several years. These animals join the dominant male in an integrated defense of the group's territory, in a local social subgroup called a coterie. When female prairie dogs become sexually mature at about three years of age, they may be allowed to remain in their natal coterie. However, the male animals are always driven away when they mature, and they must then engage in a high-risk wandering, searching for an opportunity to establish their own coterie.

Prairie dogs are mostly herbivorous, feeding during the day on the tissues of many species of herbaceous plants. They also eat insects , such as grasshoppers , when they are readily available. The grazing activities of prairie dogs can be intense in the vicinity of their towns, and this greatly alters the character of the vegetation.

Prairie dogs often sit upright and survey their surroundings for potential dangers. If an imminent threat is observed, these animals quickly scurry underground. If only a potential threat is perceived, the prairie dog emits a sharp bark to warn others of the possible danger. This action heightens the state of awareness of the entire colony, and the movements of the marauding coyote, badger, hawk, rattlesnake, or person are closely monitored. There are specific alarm calls for ground-based and aerial predators, and there is also an all-clear signal.

Prairie dogs gain weight through the summer and autumn, and they are noticeably fat and heavy at the onset of winter. Prairie dogs are not true hibernators, entering instead into deep, long sleeps in their hay-lined dens. These intense snoozes are occasionally interrupted for feeding and toiletry. On warm, sunny days the prairie dogs may interrupt their sleepy inactivity, and emerge to the surface to feed and stretch.

Many predators hunt prairie dogs, making these animals an important element of the food web of the prairies. In addition, abandoned burrows of prairie dogs are used by many other types of animals that do not dig their own burrows, for example, burrowing owls (Speotyto cunicularia).

Prairie dogs are often perceived to be agricultural pests , because they can consume large quantities of forage, and thereby compete with livestock . Prairie dogs may also directly consume crops , and when they are abundant they can cause significant damage. In addition, the excavations of prairie dogs can be hazardous to unwary livestock, who can step into an access hole, or cause an underground tunnel to collapse under their weight, and perhaps break one of their legs.

For these reasons, prairie dogs have been relentlessly persecuted by humans, mostly through poisoning campaigns. Regrettably, this means that very few towns of prairie dogs continue to flourish. The great declines in the abundance of prairie dogs has had substantial, secondary consequences for the many predators that feed on these animals, including endangered species such as the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) and burrowing owl.

Species of prairie dogs

The most common and widespread of the five species of prairie dog is the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), occuring in dry, upland prairies from southern Saskatchewan to northern Mexico. The pelage of the black-tailed prairie dog is yellowish brown, except for the dark last third of their tail. The closely related Mexican prairie dog (C. mexicanus) occurs in a small area of northern Mexico, and has about one-half of its tail colored black.

The white-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys leucurus) occurs in prairies and grasslands of high-elevation, upland plateaus in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. This species is rather similar in coloration to the black-tailed prairie dog, but it utilizes different habitats, and it has a white tip to its tail. The closely related Gunnison's prairie dog (C. gunnisoni) of Colorado and New Mexico, and the Utah prairie dog (C. parvidens) of Utah have relatively restricted distributions, and they may in fact be subspecies of the white-tailed prairie dog.

See also Rodents.


Resources

books

Banfield, A.W.F. The Mammals of Canada. Toronto: Ont. University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Grzimek, B., ed. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. London: McGraw Hill, 1990.

Hall, E.R. The Mammals of North America. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1981.

Nowak, R.M., ed. Walker's Mammals of the World. 5th ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Wilson, D.E., and D. Reeder. Mammal Species of the World. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.


Bill Freedman

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Coterie

—The local, territory-holding, social group of prairie dogs, consisting of a mature male, a harem of one to four breeding females, and their young offspring.

Herbivore

—An animal that only eats plant foods.

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