Black-tailed prairie dogs, named for their black-tipped tails and dog-like “bark,” once lived throughout the Great Plains in “towns” that extended for miles and contained hundreds of thousands of individuals. Current dog towns seldom exceed 100 acres due to changes in land use and poisoning. They excavate a complex underground system of tunnels and rooms that may be as deep as 15 feet with horizontal tunnels reaching 10-15 feet long. The soil is pushed to the surface to create numerous mounds. They forage throughout the day with sentinels sitting upright, standing guard as others feed. When a predator is sighted, the sentinel “barks” and the entire colony scampers to their protective burrows. Abandoned burrows provide homes for spiders, salamanders, toads, ornate box turtles, snakes and burrowing owls. In the spring, females produce a single litter of 2-10 pups. They may live up to 8 years.
Distribution: Black-tailed prairie dogs live on the High Plains from northern Mexico to southern Canada. They are found in shortgrass prairies and overgrazed rangelands of the western half of Kansas.
Food: Black-tailed prairie dogs feed primarily on green vegetation, including grasses, forbs, seeds, stems and the occasional insect.
Common Questions about Prairie Dogs
There are a lot of misconceptions around this fascinating animals, so let's go over a few.
No. While many ranchers worry over having prairie dogs in their pastures because of these rodent's love grass, this is actually a very common misconception. Historically, prairie dogs live along side thousands of bison and other large herbivores and peacefully and can do so today with cattle.
Maybe if you cuddled a sick one! Plague (transmitted by fleas) is a huge problem in prairie dog colonies as being social means it spreads quickly. However, without treatment most prairie dogs die within a few days to a week after catching plague so it's highly unlikely a human would ever get sick from being near prairie dogs (plus, they like to run and hide from humans!). Entire towns can be wiped out if infected with plague.
The short answer: a LOT! Prairie dogs are important to their ecosystem as food, too. Black-footed ferrets, coyotes, swift foxes, badgers, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, and many other large predators heavily rely on prairie dogs as a large part of their diet.
As seen in the GIF to the right, the jump-yip is perhaps the most recognizable call that a prairie dog can give, and only the black-tailed prairie dog and the Mexican prairie dog do this call. What does it mean? No one really knows! They could just be excited, or maybe checking in on nearby family members. When one goes another tends to answer, but nothing changes about their behavior afterwards, so it's hard to tell what was said.