The black-tailed prairie dog is a member of the squirrel family. Of the five species of prairie dogs in western North America, only the black-tailed prairie dog lives in the Great Plains. It has a black-tipped tail, brown fur, large black eyes and short legs and sharp claws developed for digging burrows.Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species because their colonies create islands of habitat that benefit approximately 150 other species. They are a food source for many animals, including coyotes, eagles, badgers, and the critically endangered black-footed ferret. Many species, like the black-footed ferret and tiger salamander, use their burrows as homes. Prairie dogs even help aerate and fertilize the soil, allowing a greater diversity of plants to thrive.
Prairie dogs spend most hot summer days sleeping and are active above ground mornings and evenings. In cool or overcast weather, prairie dogs may remain above ground all day. They emerge shortly after sunrise, and return to the burrow around sunset. Rain will often drive them to retreat underground.
Prairie dogs have specific activities to perform. A typical day is divided between foraging, interacting with others, maintaining burrows, and scouting for predators. Typically within each coterie, one prairie dog acts as the sentinel, standing on the mound and watching for predators. If danger is detected, the "look-out" warns the other colony members by emitting a series of bark-like whistles, and drop to safety inside his burrow.
Black-tailed prairie dogs mainly consume grasses, sedges, forbs (flowering plants), roots and seeds, though they are also known to eat insects.
PopulationBlack-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the hundreds of millions – maybe even over 1 billion – and were possibly the most abundant mammal in North America. But due to a variety of reasons, their numbers have decreased by over 95%. Today they may number around 10-20 million.
RangeBlack-tailed prairie dog colonies were once found across the Great Plains from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Their colonies once occupied probably 40-80 million acres within this 400 million acre region, and were often tens of miles long. Today their small, scattered colonies occupy 1-2 million acres within this region. They have been eradicated completely from Arizona but survive in small numbers (relative to historic numbers) in the other 10 U.S. states, 2 Mexican states, and 1 Canadian province.
Prairie dogs are colonial animals that live in complex networks of tunnels with multiple openings. Colonies are easily identified by the raised-burrow entrances that give the diminutive prairie dogs some extra height when acting as sentries and watching for predators or signs of danger. The tunnels contain separate "rooms" for sleeping, rearing young, storing food, and eliminating waste.Prairie dogs are very social and live in closely knit family groups called "coteries." Coteries usually contain an adult male, one or more adult females and their young offspring. These coteries are grouped together into wards (or neighborhoods) and several wards make up a colony or town.
Prairie dogs have a complex system of communication that includes a variety of pitched warning barks that signal different types of predators. Prairie dogs earned their name from settlers traveling across the plains who thought that these warning calls sounded similar to dogs barking.
Humans pose the greatest threat to prairie dogs, frequently poisoning and shooting the animals and often plowing or bulldozing entire colonies for cropland or development. Many ranchers dislike the animals because they eat grass that ranchers would rather have for their livestock. Sylvatic plague—an exotic disease that entered North America in 1900—is also threatening their survival.
Height: 12 inches (when standing upright).
Length: 12-15 inches (including a 2-3 inch tail).
Weight: 1-3 lbs.
Lifespan: 3-5 years in the wild; 8 years in captivity.