Scientific Name: Cynomys ludovicianus
During their expedition to the Pacific Northwest, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first saw prairie dogs when they entered South Dakota and were captivated by them, calling them “barking squirrels” in their numerous journal entries.
Life Without the Prairie Dog
Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone species” by ecologists. They are food for the black-footed ferret, swift fox, golden eagle, badger, coyote, bobcat, and ferruginous hawk. They provide housing for ground-dwelling birds, such as the mountain plover and burrowing owl. Grazing species like the bison, pronghorn, and mule deer prefer the lands the prairie dog occupies because their burrows have aerated and fertilized the native grasses and plants. As the prairie dog population has declined, so have the populations of many animals, including the black-footed ferret (critically endangered) and swift fox, which depend on them.
The prairie dog population in North America has dropped by 98% since the turn of the 20th century, when it numbered approximately five billion. Even so, they are listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Prairie dogs live throughout most of the western United States, from Canada into Mexico, on the grassy plains and prairies. Some species live in the higher areas of the Great Basin and the Mojave and Chihuahuan Deserts. Prairie dog “towns” consist of thousands of animals and can spread over 25,000 square miles. A “town” consists of numerous family groups called “coteries.” A coterie’s territory is approximately an acre in size and can contain as many as 70 burrow entrances.
Prairie dogs are herbivorous, eating all kinds of grasses, roots, weeds, and blossoms. They obtain most of their moisture needs from the food they eat. They do, however, eat insects occasionally.
Prairie dogs belong to the same family as squirrels and chipmunks and are among the largest of the rodents. They can be as tall as 15 to 16 inches from the top of the head to the tip of the very short tail and weigh as much as 3 pounds. When sitting on their haunches, these chubby little “dogs” look pear-shaped. Their eyes are set on the sides of the head, which provides them with better sight range to detect predators. Ears are very small and usually hidden by hair. Their coloring ranges from brown to clay-color with a buff-shaded belly.