New Prairie Dogs at Desert Museumby Jonathan DuHamel on Jul. 27, 2010, under Natural History
Three old bachelor prairie dogs were joined by 24 new, younger animals from the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas. The new animals (six males, 15 females and three of indeterminate sex) are out of quarantine, and now on display at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. They are already renovating the network of tunnels in the exhibit.
Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus, one-to three pounds, 14-to 17 inches long) are the most abundant and widely distributed of the five species of prairie dogs in North America. They are distributed across the great plains from northern Mexico to southern Canada, and they once inhabited southern Arizona.
Mexican prairie dogs also have a black-tipped tail, but are smaller than the black-tailed of the U.S. White-tailed, Gunnison’s, and Utah prairie dogs all have white-tipped tails and are limited in range.
The estimated prairie dog population in the late 1800s is put at 5 billion. The largest single colony, in Texas, measured 100 miles wide and 250 miles long and was estimated to contain 400 million prairie dogs. Prairie dog populations declined when the bison herds were thinned. Apparently the bison ate the long grasses, leaving the short grass prairie dogs eat. But prairie dogs will not colonize areas of high grass because they cannot see predators in that situation.
It was once thought that prairie dogs competed with cattle for forage. About 80% of prairie dog diet is grass (about two pounds per week). They also eat broad-leafed, non-woody plants. They sometimes eat insects, seeds, and plant roots. Government programs of poisoning prairie dogs, beginning in the early 1900s, have reduced the population to about 1% to 2% of what it was in the mid-1800s. However, newer research indicates that although their diets overlap, prairie dogs do not limit cattle forage because cattle prefer the more protein-rich plants that grow within the prairie dog colonies, as did the bison. The research shows that drought and overgrazing by cattle actually encourage prairie dog colony expansion.
Prairie dogs communicate with each other with at least 11 distinct vocalizations and with various postures. Members of a coterie (family) will appear to kiss; they are touching teeth. This behavior allows them to distinguish coterie members from strangers.
Black-tailed prairie dogs breed once a year, usually in January or February. The female is in estrous for only 3-to 4 hours on one day each year. One to six pups are born after a gestation period of only about 35 days. The pups are naked, blind, and helpless and stay underground for about six weeks. The pups reach maturity by fall and the males tend to disperse. Normal life span is up to eight years for females (who stay in their original coterie) and about five years for males, who face the dangers of travel. The normal coterie consists of one male, four or five females, and up to 30 young less than two years old.
Predators include badgers, weasels, ferrets, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, hawks, and eagles. Snakes may take the young, but usually do not threaten adults.
Prairie dogs carry fleas which contain bubonic plague. This disease may wipe out prairie dog colonies and is a danger to humans. It is the “black plague” that caused the death of one-third of Europe’s population in the 1300s. Rattlesnakes and black widow spiders are common residents of prairie dog towns.
Because prairie dogs dig holes and otherwise scratch the soil, their presence, in short-grass prairies, tends to increase the diversity of plant species, particularly perennial species. Besides predators, prairie dog colonies attract other animals, particularly birds, including the burrowing owl.
Prairie dogs are cute critters, but you wouldn’t want them in your front lawn.
The Desert Museum’s summer hours are 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Fridays, and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays. The prairie dogs are more likely to be out early in the morning when it is cool.