Black-Tailed Prairie Dog
|Scientific name||Cynomys ludovicianus|
|Length||14-17 inches (30 cm)|
|Weight||1-3 pounds (454-1,362 g)|
|Life span||3-5 years|
|Number of young at birth||3-5 at a time|
|Age of maturity||2 years|
Little dog on the prairie
Prairie dogs live in the Great Plains areas of North America from Southern Canada to Mexico.
A dog’s diet
Prairie dogs eat grasses, roots, seeds, and other leafy plants, and these feeding habits have a big effect on the landscape. When tall plants are destroyed, the clearings created make it hard for predators to launch a sneak attack.
No floppy ears on these dogs
Black-tailed prairie dogs are generally tan in color, with lighter-colored bellies. Their tails have black tips, which is how they were named. Settlers called these animals “dogs” because of their high-pitched, bark-like call.
A true underground town
Prairie dogs are very social rodents that live in huge underground burrows called “towns.” Undisturbed towns have tens of thousands of prairie dog residents and go for miles in every direction. Each town consists of subgroups, or “wards,” and wards are in turn split into family groups called “coteries.” Each coterie defends a home territory of about one acre from surrounding coteries. The typical coterie territory has 70 separate burrow entrances. The mounds provide protection from the weather and give the little prairie dogs some extra height when watching for predators. Underground, the tunnels contain separate chambers for sleeping, rearing young, and eliminating waste. Although prairie dogs spend much of the day looking for food, they do not store food in their burrows.
That’s a lot of holes!
One prairie dog town discovered in Texas in 1900 was the size of the state of Maryland and was thought to contain some 400 million prairie dogs in its tunnels!
When prairie dogs compete for territory, they stare at each other, chatter their teeth, and flare their tails. These territorial arguments may last for more than 30 minutes and sometimes include fights and chases. Although prairie dogs can be fiercely territorial about their coterie, they cooperate with surrounding families by acting as lookouts to warn each other of invading predators or other signs of danger. When a predator approaches, the first alert prairie dog gives a sharp warning call, bobs up and down in excitement, calls again, and then plunges into the burrow below. This warning call is a 2-syllable bark, issued at about 40 barks per minute. Other lookouts farther from the danger zone take up the watch, noting the progress of the predator and alerting the town members along the route.
A mother prairie dog may have 4 litters in her lifetime. Breeding season occurs in March/April. When a female prairie dog is ready to give birth, she goes to the nursery burrow. The young, called pups, are born hairless and with eyes closed. In the nursery, the mother will take care of her pups until they are about six weeks old and ready to venture aboveground. At about one year of age, the young prairie dog may leave to start a new coterie by taking over abandoned tunnels or by digging new ones.