The prairie dog (Cynomys) is a small, burrowing rodent native to the grasslands of North America. This stout-bodied rodent will grow to be between 12 and 16 inches (30 and 40 cm) long, including its short tail. They are found throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In the United States, prairie dogs are primarily found west of the Mississippi River. They have also been introduced into a few eastern locales.
Biology and behavior
The highly social prairie dogs live in large colonies or “towns”. Collections of prairie dog families can span many acres of land and lead more than 11 yards (10 meters) into the ground. Families tend to consist of one male and 2 to 4 females. Some consist of multiple males and females or just a single creature. Colonies are fixed. The complex tunnel system they use can sustain for dozens of years.
Prairie dog tunnel systems are believed to help channel rainwater into the water table to prevent runoff and erosion. They also can serve to change the composition of the soil in a region by reversing soil compaction that can be a result of cattle grazing. The tunnels have separate rooms for sleeping, eating, babysitting, and just sitting. Prairie dogs are also known to control the populations of several weed species, which has been found to overrun some lands where prairie dogs are no longer found.
The prairie dog is well adapted to predators. Using its dichromatic color vision, it can detect predators from afar and then alert other prairie dogs to the danger. They use special high-pitched call. Prairie dogs also trim the vegetation around their colonies, perhaps to remove any cover for predators.
Their burrows generally contain several routes of escape.
The prairie dog is chiefly herbivorous, though it eats some insects. It feeds primarily on grasses. They have up to 4 pups yearly, which are born blind and furless and need about 30 days of close nurturing by their mother.
Despite their ecological importance, prairie dogs are frequently exterminated from ranchland. They have been labeled as a pest because they are capable of damaging crops, and often clear the immediate area around their burrows of most vegetation
Prairie dog habitat has been impacted by encroachment of human development, and removal by ranchers and farmers. Numbers of all species of prairie dog have been greatly reduced as a result. The largest remaining community is comprised of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs.
They can be difficult pets to care for, and have very specific diet of grasses and hay. Each year they go into a period called rut, which can last for several months. During the rut, their personalities can drastically change, often becoming defensive or even aggressive. Despite their needs prairie dogs are very social animals.
In mid-2003, due to cross-contamination several prairie dogs in captivity acquired monkey pox. A few humans were also infected. This led the CDC to institute an outright ban on the sale, trade, and transport of prairie dogs within the United States. The disease was never introduced to any wild populations.
The European Union also banned importation of prairie dogs in response. Prairie dogs are also very susceptible to bubonic plague, and several wild colonies have been wiped out by it. Also, in 2002, a large group of prairie dogs in captivity in Texas were found to have contracted tularemia. Prairie dogs are not natural carriers of any of the three diseases, but the ban is believed to be in the best interests of protecting the public