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Prairie Dog

Prairie dog
Source: USFWS
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Rodentia
  • Family: Sciuridae
  • Genus: Cynomys

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What do prairie dogs look like?

Prairie dogs are small little furry animals. They grow to just over a foot tall and have a tail that is 3 to 4 inches long. They typically weigh between 2 to 4 pounds. They have brown fur, black eyes, and short limbs with claws.

Different Types of Prairie Dogs

There are five different species of prairie dogs including the black-tailed (udovicianus), white-tailed (leucurus), Mexican (mexicanus), Gunnison's (gunnisoni), and the Utah (parvidens).

Are they really dogs?

Prairie dogs are not really dogs, but are a type of rodent or ground squirrel. They got the name "dog" from the dog-like bark sound they make.

Where do they live?

They live primarily in the central part of the United States in the Great Plains. They live in areas that have a wide range of temperatures from very cold to extremely hot.

Black-tailed prairie dog
Source: USFWS

Prairie dogs are perhaps most famous for the burrows that they make. They build large burrows under the ground with numerous entrances. Their burrows are typically 6 to 10 feet deep and are made up of long tunnels and chambers. Some of the chambers have specific uses such as nursery chambers for young prairie dogs, nighttime chambers, chambers for the winter, and places to listen for predators.

Prairie Dog Towns

Prairie dogs live in a complex social society. The smallest group is a family group called a "coterie" or "clan". Family groups typically consist of a male, a few females, and their offspring. Each coterie typically covers an area of about one acre and will have a burrow with 60 to 70 entrances. Several family groups can make up a prairie dog town. Some prairie dog towns have tens of thousands of prairie dogs and cover miles and miles of land. Large towns may have a division between the town and the coterie called a ward. A ward is made up of several coteries.

What do prairie dogs eat?

Prairie dogs are omnivores, meaning they eat plants. They eat roots, seeds, grasses, and leafy plants.

Defending Their Homes

Prairie dogs have a number of ways to defend their homes from predators. First they clear out much of the landscape of tall plants and make clearings so that they can see predators approaching. They also make tall mounds at some of the entrances to their burrows so they can look for predators from a higher vantage point. Then they post sentries who keep an eye out for predators. If they see danger, they give a quick warning bark and all the nearby prairie dogs scurry for safety into their burrows.

Typical predators include hawks, coyotes, badgers, snakes, and eagles.

White-tailed prairie dog
Source: USFWS
Are they endangered?

It is estimated that just over 100 years ago there were around 5 billion prairie dogs living on the Great Plains. That is a lot of prairie dogs! However, their population has dwindled significantly and around 98% of the prairie dog population is gone. This drop is mostly because farmers and ranchers see the animal as a pest which destroys their crops and the food of their livestock. As a result, ranchers have actively been eliminating prairie dogs for decades.

The Utah and the Mexican prairie dog are officially classified as endangered species. However, the large drop in population of all of the species is of great concern to many scientists.

An Important Species

Today many scientists are saying that prairie dogs are an important part of the ecosystem and the grassland biome. They are considered a "keystone species". Prairie dogs provide food for a number of predators, help to aerate the soil with their burrows, and fertilize the soil with their dung.

Fun Facts about the Prairie Dog For more about mammals:

African Wild Dog
American Bison
Bactrian Camel
Blue Whale
Giant Panda
Polar Bears
Prairie Dog
Red Kangaroo
Red Wolf
Spotted Hyena

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