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By Sally Griffin

Prairie Dogs are cute little fuzzy creatures with a strong sense of family and one of the most sophisticated language systems among wild creatures. But the numbers of these creatures have been decimated throughout their range by almost 95 percent. Habitat loss, bulldozing, poisonings and recreational shootings have contributed greatly to this loss.

State officials and environmentalists have realized that the loss of these creatures has great impact among other animals. Black-footed ferrets are in danger of extinction because prairie dogs are their only food source. Prairie dogs are a key species to nine other species, such as hawks, owls, foxes, ferrets and many others who depend on prairie dogs for food. We are in the process of trying to save these fuzzy, vocal rodents because they are food — in fact, the only food for some species, like the ferret.

However, it seems we that are coming to realize that in addition to providing food and shelter to other animals, their burrows actually enrich the soil and improve plant growth because water can flow underground. Prairie dogs are one animal that will locate their home in overgrazed areas so that they can see predators before they get too near.

Prairie dogs live in underground burrows that have many tunnels, chambers and, occasionally, dams to control water. Burrows have defined nurseries, sleeping quarters and toilets. They also provide listening posts where sentinels can keep tabs of predators outside and warn other members of the prairie dog town. They spend a lot of time building and rebuilding their homes. Other animals, such as burrowing owls and snakes, are glad to take advantage of the prairie dogs’ work.

Although prairie dogs live in large, close-knit communities, they won’t hug and kiss just anybody. Prairie dogs do interact through oral contact or “kissing” and by grooming each other. But this kind of interaction is limited to family groups. They play and chase each other and get into family spats. Family groups are the most basic units of prairie dog society. Being highly social, these family groups then collect together into colonies or “towns.” These towns can span hundreds of acres and may contain 15 to 26 family groups.

In addition to hugging and kissing, prairie dogs have developed some of the most sophisticated language skills among wild animals.

Con Slobodchikoff, an animal behaviorist from Northern Arizona University, discovered that their communication system is surprisingly advanced. Not only do they have different warning calls depending on the type of predator – coyote, dog, human, hawk – they also construct sentences to describe what a particular predator looks like.

By showing captive prairie dogs several simple silhouetted shapes such as triangles, circles and squares, Slobodchikoff also determined that they can come up with new calls to communicate to each other about things they’ve never seen before. This, he maintains, is evidence that these animals have a highly developed language that they can use to name any potential threat.

And they have different responses to different alarm calls. For instance, hawk alarms mean everybody dive into your burrow immediately. Coyote alarms indicate the need for observation, then further alarm calls will warn everyone as to exactly what the coyote is doing.

Prairie dogs also have a group communication signal, the meaning of which nobody is exactly sure. This has been mostly observed among black-tailed prairie dogs. It is the territorial call or “jump-yip” display. The prairie dog will abruptly raise its chest up, throw its forefeet into the air and land on its butt while making a high-pitched “wee-oo” sound. A jump-yip from one prairie dog will usually cause others to do the same. Just like a wave at a football game, jump-yips can travel through a whole colony. It’s like prairie dog-popcorn. Some experts think this may be an “all clear” signal to let a colony know that a predator has moved on. Other experts think it is a way to make sure that other dogs are paying attention to their surroundings. Still others think it is a way to have fun together. Or it could have to do with disputes over territory. It could also be a way to get others to provide up-to-date information on predators, so the one who started the jump-yip can spend more time hunting for food. No one is exactly sure why there are jump-yips, but this activity is fascinating to researchers and will certainly be a central part of future studies.

Here are some other facts about their surprisingly complex world:

  • Their entire mating session is just one-hour long. They mate just once in early winter for only one hour. They have litters of three to eight pups, of which only about half survive their first year. They live in tight-knit family groups called coteries. These coteries have one or two males, several females and the females’ new pups. Males may move around from coterie to coterie, but females stick together for life.
  • They are cousins of the squirrels in your back yard. Other close relatives are groundhogs, chipmunks, marmots and woodchucks.
  • They are not a passive form of food. They can run up to 35 mph. They can be fast, skilled fighters with sharp claws and teeth. It takes a while for black-footed ferrets to learn how to catch them and to learn that they will fight back.
  • They are very susceptible to bubonic plague, acquired from infected fleas (another species relying on prairie dogs as food). Many colonies have been wiped out by it. But biologists have developed a vaccine to help protect prairie dog towns from the plague.
  • In 1900, the largest prairie dog settlement on the high plains of Texas was 100 miles by 250 miles and contained an estimated 400 million prairie dogs. Imagine the delight of the black-footed ferret that found that prairie dog town.

Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “Prairie-dogs are abundant… they are in shape like little woodchucks and are the most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable. They are never found singly, but always in towns of several hundred inhabitants; and these towns are found in all kinds of places where the country is flat and treeless.”