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Black-Tailed Prairie Dog

(Cynomys ludovicianus)

Size: 14-17 inches (350-425 mm) long
Weight: 2-3 pounds (.91-1.4 kg)
Lifespan: 3-5 years
Sexual Maturity: 1-2 years
Gestation: about 30 days

Prairie Dog Basics

Black-tailed prairie dogs are tough, social animals that live in and around burrows deep within the prairie soil. They grow to between 14 and 17 inches (350-425 mm) long and weigh about 2 to 3 pounds (.91-1.4 kg). They are tan with a whitish or buff-white belly. The tips of their tails are sparsely covered by black hair. They have short ears and, compared to their body size, relatively large black eyes. Prairie dogs live from three to five years.

Out on the Town

Black-tailed prairie dogs live in complex communities, called "towns" or "colonies." The colony is an underground tunnel system leading to various chambers which are bedded with dry leaves and grass. At one time, the typical town covered 100 acres (404,700 m²) or more. The towns are divided into territorial neighborhoods or "wards," which are comprised of coteries.

Coteries are family groups made up of one male, one to four females, and their young up to 2 years of age. Young male prairie dogs will usually emigrate to another colony but seldom will try to start a new one. Although there are many entrances to the colony, the most recognizable prairie dog burrow opening is encircled by a hard-packed mound of earth reaching about 1 foot above the ground.

A Day in the Life of a Prairie Dog

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.

The More the Merrier

Prairie dogs play a very important role in sustaining other prairie life. Biologists count more than 170 vertebrate species that are affected by the prairie dogs' existence.

Lewis and Clark, while on their famous 1804 journey across North America, noted that this "wild dog of the prairie...appears here in infinite numbers." At that time, an estimated five billion prairie dogs lived throughout the continent's vast prairie!

The loss of open prairie has dramatically reduced the prairie dog population. Since the arrival of European settlers, North America's prairie dog population has plummeted by 98 percent. Prairie dogs have been exterminated because of the perceived competition with grazing cattle and bison for grasses. New studies indicate that prairie dogs do not drastically affect the amount of vegetation available for cattle.

Prairie dogs are also struggling against an inadvertently introduced disease called the sylvatic plague. This infection is caused by a bacterium transmitted by fleas. People concerned about the black-tailed prairie dog's survival are pushing to have the species listed as threatened on the U.S. Endangered Species List. The Mexican prairie dog (Cynomys mexicanus) has already been listed.

Along with the near-extermination of prairie dogs came the near-extinction of black-footed ferrets, whose diet is primarily prairie dogs. more

Key Terms and Common Behaviors

Chirking: At the first sign of trouble this alarm call is sounded. This is a "chirk-chirk-chirk" sound.

Coterie: A family group of prairie dogs made up of one male, one to four females and their young, up to 2 years old.

Jump-yip: A strong arch of the back (the "jump"), followed by a shrill "yip." This occurs when a predator has left the area and in territorial displays.

Kissing: Family members greet with what looks like a kiss. They're not really kissing, but gently touching their front teeth together. This is how prairie dogs recognize each other.

Fun Facts

Vegetable matter forms over 98 percent of a prairie dog's diet.

Prairie dogs are not dogs at all. They are actually one of the 1,814 rodent species that live all over the planet.

Copyright 2002, Friends of the National Zoo