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Prarie Dogs

Prairie Dog Rodentia

Prarie Dogs

Wee-oo! Wee-oo! Whistles a prairie dog, probably signaling “All’s Clear” one of several distinct calls it is given with the head thrown back and forelegs extended. During such display, which may also express territorial rights or well being, the animal often jumps straight up; exuberant ones topple over backwards.


Despite their doggy name the prairie dogs are short tailed, gnawing living rodents. They are of the genus cymomus, and order Rodentia, the largest group of mammals in the world. Not at all a dog, this stocky rodent takes its name from its bark.  They are also members of the squirrel family.

Prairie dogs are gnawing mammals Rodentia. They are robust stocky rodents, slightly grizzled and fat. They have broad rounded head, hairy tails and short legs. Their skulls have twenty-two teeth. Prairie dogs weigh between one and one-half to three pounds. The head and body are 11 to 13 inches long, with a tail length of three to four inches. They are yellowish in color, with darker ears and a pale to whitish belly. Prairie dogs have whitish or buff patches on the sides of their nose, their upper lips and around their eyes  forming a ring. Prairie dog’s ears are very short and often hidden in the fur.

Prairie dog tails are generally short and bushy, but vary considerably in length and color between species. Eyes are positioned on the sides of the head appear to be adapted for detecting movement over a wide arc, and this allows them to detect predators with greater success.  Feet are large and have well developed claws, especially on the forefeet. They are usually a creaming color.

One litter is born to the prairie dog female each year. During a four or five hour estrus, a female mate copulate with as many as five different males, allowing pups from the same litter to have different fathers. Mating generally occurs in early spring (a gestation period 28 to 32 days). The young are born in spring. The youngsters hibernate with their parents October through March. There are usually three to five youngsters in a litter, but sometimes as many as eight. The young are blind and hairless. Their eyes don’t open for 33 to 37 days. At about six weeks of age, they begin to appear above ground and are ready to be weaned. They probably separate from the mother by early fall.

During early June, the young begin to emerge from their burrows for the first time. At this time yearlings (young from the previous year) and some adults may relocate leaving the young pups to feel secure, both socially and environmentally in the old burrow. When prairie dogs relocate, they take over abandoned holes or dig new holes at the edge of the town. A few may travel miles in search of new areas but once away form the communal warning system, most are easy prey for predators. The young males of the family usually move away before their first breeding season.   The females may spend their lives in their original coterie.

Female may live up to eight years of age and males usually live to be one more than five years of age.


There are five species of prairie dogs (genus cynomys) Gunnison’s Prairie Dog lc. Grinnson has a much shorter tail than other prairie dogs. It is uniquely colored and they center around 5000-11000 feet altitude. Mexican prairie dog (C. Mexicanus) is an endangered species with a limited distribution.

Utah prairie dog (C. Parvedens) is the smallest of all Prairie Dogs and threatened. Black tailed Prairie Dogs (C. Ludovicianus) occupy narrow bands of dry plains stretching from Central Texas to Canada. White-tailed Prairie Dog (C. Leucusus) inhabits Western U.S. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana.

Of the two main species the Black-tailed, and the white-tailed. The scientific name for the black-tailed is “ludovicianus” the Latin form of Ludwig of Louis relating back to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, when prairie dogs were first collected for science. It has a black-tipped tail and is much more widespread; It is sold in pet shops and may either be a baby caught in the wild or from a breeder. The black-tailed is active all year. In winter, it remains underground for several days when weather is severe, but comes our on sunny afternoons to look for food and bask in the sun. In springtime in mountain meadow heralds the whitetail prairie dog (C Luscurus) has a white tipped tail. This species inhabits higher altitudes. It hibernates in the winter and it less colonial in habit.


Prairie dogs are native to short-grass prairie habitats. They play an important role in the prairie ecosystems of the American West. Prairie Dogs are sociable creatures and live in colonies or “towns” that may vary in size from a few individuals to several thousand animals. They work together to build a town, which they divide into neighborhoods. They are strictly diurnal and active from sunrise to sunset. During summer they spend most of the day light hours eating. They store up reserves of fat to tide them over the winter months.

A single dominant male will defend several small “coteries” or harems of two to eight females. Population units called “wards” which are separated by unoccupied areas of unsuitable habitat or other barriers, activity and breeding are conducted within the coteries.

They don’t let strangers into their homes they “kiss” and “hug” when they meet to identify each other as family.

The members of the group share their burrows, groom one another, and communicate through a variety of gestures and sounds.


The Prairie dog had been known to live for at least eight years in captivity; its average life span in the wild is usually three to four years. A prairie dog is susceptible to a number of diseases, the most notable being plague. Plague is an infectious disease transmitted by the bits of an infected flea. Plague can be devastating to prairie dog populations, wiping out entire colonies in some areas. This disease was known as “black death” in the 1300’s when about one-third of Europe’s human population was lost. Although it can be transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected flea it is now treatable in humans.


Prarie Dogs
Photo by Free Stock Photos

Prarie Dogs
Photo by: Gerald and Buff Corsi
 California Academy of Sciences

Prarie Dog Predator
Photo by: Gerald and Buff Corsi
 California Academy of Sciences


The Prairie Dog fall prey to snakes, owls, hawks, eagles, badgers, bobcats, ferrets, plagues and man. Man is the main enemy, who had poisoned, shot, gassed and drowned them. At nighttime the hungry badger may rip out shallow tunnels to get at the Prairie dog. Ferrets will plunder a burrow. Snakes will sometimes hibernate in burrows and eat their pups. If the snake moves in, the prairie dog will not necessarily abandon its home. It might choose to wall off the occupied portion tamping the earth plug with its blunt nose. A diving raptor with its long talons extending can terrify a colony. They can seize a prairie dog before it can find cover and takes off with an interrupted meal.

Prarie Dogs
Photo by Free Stock Photo


Prairie Dogs possess the most sophisticated of all natural animal languages. At least 11 separate calls have been identified and a variety of pastures and displays are utilized. They have a high-pitched, bark-like call. They use different sounds identifying various predators. Calls range from signals of alarm to “all-clear”. Raising the alarm and disappearing quickly is the only defense they have from predators. The early settlers called them “dogs” and “sod poodles” because of their high-pitched, bark-like call.

In the spring and summer, each one consumes up to two pounds of vegetation per week. They spend a great deal of time eating. Fat must be stored for a long sleep. They prefer to have their food nearby. They are almost exclusively vegetarian. The nursing females have been observed both cannibalizing and communally nursing each other’s pups. They acquire all of their water from food they eat. Sometimes insects, grasses, roots, weeds, foliage, and blossoms are eaten. In September most all adults have retired to winter quarters underground. The hungry juveniles may tarry around for a few weeks, waiting until heavy snowfalls drive them to cover.

Prairie Dogs eat as much as seven percent of a ranch’s forage. Eradication programs have been underway for decades in the American West. Experts argue that they may actually be beneficial, that they are natural fertilizers who also increase the protein content and digestibity of rangeland grasses.

Conservation Management:

Today, after decades of eradication by federal, state, and local governments, devastation from disease poisoning, recreational shooting and habitat destruction prairie dogs are rapidly disappearing. More have been exterminated than remain inhabiting only about two percent of their former range. Breaking native ground for farming and poisoning to eliminate competition for cattle grazing had taken its toll. The foot-tall rodent has been charged with crimes since old West days: It ate grass needed to fatten steers: its burrow openings lame horses. Prairie dogs eat many weeds cattle won’t touch. The burrow mounds rejuvenate the soil. Abandoned tunnels shelter wild life.

Only a very small percent of the habitat remains of what was historically prairie dog town. Many other wildlife species thrive on the presence of the towns. One is the black-footed ferret, which at one time solely preyed on prairie dogs, this has vanished. There are negatively effected by the loss of a food source and living quarters. Hunting is legal for some species but hasn’t done too much to harm the population. This had helped to keep the present towns from expanding so far that the landowners want to eliminate them entirely. Today Prairie Dog thrives mainly on protected lands.


A prairie dog’s underground “burrow” home is an elaborate network of tunnels at the base of a plunge shaft. These ground-dwelling squirrels dig tunnels about 15 feet deep into the ground called “towns”. The complex and extensive home provides shelter from storms, refuge from predators and a crazy place for a nursery. The entrances of the burrows are surrounded by cone-shaped mounds to prevent flooding, and serve as observation posts: Prairie dogs often seen up night on their haunches in rows, one animal on each mound; this behavior has given them the name “picket pins” at any sign of danger the animals gives a warning cry stretching their heads into the sky and an alarm call sends all prairie dogs into burrow to hide barking. Maintaining the mounds by tamping down the damp earth. Burrows are usually quite visible because of the large mound of dirt around the entrance. A wide place near a burrow opening allows a prairie dog sit and listen for activity above the ground, no two burrows are alike. Each tunnel is unique, have an entrance, and exit, rooms for nesting and flood room. Hundreds of prairie dogs live together in towns that can cover hundred of acres of land.

A prairie dog town can be considered a biological oasis. Many wildlife species are associated with prairie dogs. Some species feed on prairie dogs, other utilize the burrow systems or the unique habitat to fulfill their needs. Where they are not controlled more than 200 different wildlife species have been observed on or near the colonies. The prairie dog and large grazing animals can benefit from each other’s presence. The prairie dog’s feeding and clipping activities stimulate new plant growth that is of higher quality and more desirable to live stock. The loss of some rangeland to prairie dogs can easily be overestimated if livestock are also using the area.

Most landowners are tolerant of small numbers but are concerned about large colonies or expanding populations. Landowners and governmental agencies are using effective control measures, safe for humans and the environment.

In addition to their importance to landowners and other wildlife species prairie dogs are also important to wildlife observers, photographers, and to creational shooters.

The number of prairie dogs in recent years appears to be healthy and increasing. Without the prairie dogs the Great Plains ecosystem could virtually collapse. So help save the little rascals. They still may be in trouble.


 Kingdom: Animalia

Prarie Dogs
Photo by: L. Arnold

 Phylum:   Chordates
 Subphylum:   Vertebrata
 Class:   Mammalia
 Order:   Rodentia
 Family:   Sciuridal

Author:  Jimmie Roark/

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