Despite their name, prairie dogs are an herbivorous rodent known for burrowing dens into the grasslands of North America. Highly social, prairie dogs can be found living in large colonies and poking their heads up to gaze across the vast and sprawling landscape.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Rodentia
Family - Sciuridae
Tribe - Marmotini
Genus - Cynomys
Common Name - Prairie Dog
Prairie dogs are named for their call, which sounds like a bark. It uses this sound to warn other prairie dogs in the colony of danger. They are burrowing rodents and belong to a group of animals called ground squirrels, which describes them much more accurately than the name "prairie dog". They grow to be about a foot long and can weigh between one and three pounds. There are five different species.
Female prairie dogs nurse their babies and keep guard over the nursing chamber, while also gathering nesting material. Males, meanwhile, defend the burrow from predators. It is thought that prairie dogs may engage in "communal breeding" in which mothers nurse babies that are not their own offspring, but this subject is much debated among those who study the creatures.
Prairie dogs live in complex burrows that may extend as deep as ten feet below the ground. Many burrows may cover a large area to form a prairie dog territory. These colonies are called "towns" and can house almost 30 different family groups. Prairie dogs are extremely social creatures that will defend their territory against an invading family using a variety of threatening displays. They will occasionally fight, using their teeth to bite and their legs to kick.
Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species, which is a species that has an incredibly large effect on its environment relative to its population size, often helping maintain their ecosystem’s overall structure. To the prairie dog’s dismay, it’s a very important prey species and is the primary diet for many types of foxes, raptors, and weasels.
Of the five species of prairie dog, three are of "Least Concern", meaning their numbers are doing just fine, but two are currently endangered. The Mexican prairie dog (C. mexicanus) and the Utah prairie dog (C. parvidens) are threatened, mainly by farmers who consider them to be pests due to the burrows they dig.