Prairie dogs, if you don’t know, are those little beaver looking mammals that inhabit America’s grasslands. They’re actually a part of the squirrel family, with chipmunks, groundhogs, woodchucks and marmots being their other close relatives.
Prairie dogs are usually between 12 and 15-inches and are the main source of food for the endangered black-footed ferrets. Don’t be fooled by their cute, meerkat-like stance and chubby bellies though, these things can fight. They’ve got super sharp claws and teeth and they’re not going down without a fight.
Unfortunately, there aren’t as many prairie dogs as there once were, mainly due to humans encroaching on their habitat. Their range across North America is just 5% of what it once was.
So, what fascinating things are there to know about these little creatures. Honestly, we think you’ll be as shocked as we were when we found these out.
Prairie Dogs Greet Each Other By Kissing
Okay, cuteness overload…seriously? Well, technically they’re “teeth-touching” but to us, it looks like they’re kissing. They do this to figure out whether the other prairie dog is a friend or foe. They might be a part of a different family or town.
Prairie Dogs Live in Complex Underground Burrows
These burrows are marked by big mounds of dirt above ground so it’s not hard to see where their tunnels begin. These aren’t just regular tunnels though. They have separate toilets, sleeping areas and nurseries which the prairie dogs will revamp and rebuild often to keep them structurally sound.
Near the end of a tunnel there is a listening post so the prairie dog can stop and listen out for any predators or danger in the open grassland above. These burrows are not only good for the prairie dogs but also for the burrowing owls, snakes and sometimes black-footed ferrets who all use the tunnels too. The black-footed ferrets are using them for sinister means though, looking for a snack!
Prairie Dogs Hibernate, But Not Fully
If you were wondering if prairie dogs hibernarte or not, they do not fully hibernate. During the winter months, prairie dogs enter a state of torpor where they drop their metabolism rate, heart rate, body temperature and breathing rate similar to hibernation. This reduction helps with conservation of energy and body water. During this state of torpor they lose twenty percenty of their body weight as winter progresses. Unlike hibernation, torpor seems to be an involuntary state that an animal enters into as the conditions dictates.
Scientist call prairie dogs facultative hibernators, which are animals that only hibernate when either deprived of food or stressed by the cold
Prairie Dogs Live in Towns
Prairie dogs like to live in communities, called towns. Usually they’ll cover around ½ square mile and contain hundreds of prairie dogs. There have been cases where huge towns have been recorded. The largest of which covered about 25,000 square miles and contained around 4 million prairie dogs. What a sight that must have been!
The prairie dogs will leave their underground town to forage for food. They’re herbivores so their diet consists mainly of seeds, roots and grass (handy considering where they live!). If one of them sees a danger, they’ll call out to the others and everyone will run back into the tunnels for protection.
Prairie Dogs Have the Most Complicated Language (Except for Humans)
This one is pretty crazy. Prairie dogs have a more sophisticated way of communicating than even dolphins and chimpanzees! I was sceptical at first too, but the studies are there to prove it. Con Slobodchikoff, PhD, studied prairie dogs in Arizona for more than 30 years!
He studied prairie dogs and noticed that when predators came by their call for “danger” was different depending on the predator. He took his students and recorded the different sounds the prairie dogs made every time a human, coyote or a hawk went by. When he analysed the sounds on his computer, he proved himself right, but he noticed that they even had a different call when it was two of the same type of predator.
It was the same call but with very subtle differences. With further studying, they figured out that the prairie dogs were not just saying “danger” and they weren’t even just saying “human” they were literally describing the individual predator. They could alert the rest of their colony if there was a human with a gun approaching, if there was a tall man in a yellow shirt or a short man in a red shirt.
This is the most sophisticated communication that we’ve been able to decode. Pretty sweet, huh!
Prairie Dogs Are Considered a Keystone Species
A keystone species is one species in an ecosystem that if they didn’t exist, the rest of the ecosystem probably wouldn’t survive. They’re basically the real MVP of the ecosystem and it could be anything from a tiny plant to a huge predator.
The prairie dog is a keystone species in their ecosystem because it’s believed that their presence helps benefit around 150 other species. They help fertilize and aerate the soil which in turn helps dozens of plants to grow. Their home is the home of a few other species also.
They’re also a food source for black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, mountain plover, swift fox and Ferruginous hawks. It’s important to keep these little critters around and try to protect their habitat and protect them from poachers because if they go, the whole ecosystem could go.
There you have it, five amazing facts about prairie dogs. Who knew these little guys were so interesting and valuable to their ecosystem. Not to mention they’re pretty darn cute too but, yes, we already checked and no, you can’t have one as a pet. Let’s just love them from afar and try and help protect their shrinking habitat.