The prairie dogs (Cynomys) are small, burrowing rodents native to the grasslands of North America. There are five different species of prairie dogs: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs. They are a type of squirrel. On average, these stout-bodied rodents will grow to be between 12 and 16 inches (30 and 40 cm) long, including the short tail and weigh between 1-3 pounds. They are found in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In Mexico, prairie dogs are primarily found in the northern states which are the southern end of the great plains: northeastern Sonora, north and northeastern Chihuahua, northern Coahuila, northern Nuevo León, and northern Tamaulipas; in the U.S., they range primarily west of the Mississippi River, though they have also been introduced in a few eastern locales.
Its genus, Cynomys, derives from the Greek for "mouse dog."
The highly social prairie dogs live in large colonies or "towns" – collections of prairie dog families that can span hundreds of acres. Families usually consist of 1 male and 2 to 4 females living in a strict social hierarchy. Prairie dog pups reach sexual maturity at about 3 years of age, and after their third winter the dominant male in a given family will drive them away, forcing them to establish their own families on the edges of the colony. The dominant male will defend the family's borders against rival prairie dogs, and disputes are resolved with fighting. Prairie dogs are also aggressive against predators such as badgers and snakes. Prairie dogs are social animals, however, and often make social visits with each other, and greet each other with a sort of kiss.
Prairie dog tunnel systems help channel rainwater into the water table to prevent runoff and erosion, and can also serve to change the composition of the soil in a region by reversing soil compaction that can be a result of cattle grazing. The tunnels usually have several chambers. Tunnels can descend vertically as much as 5 meters (16 feet), and can extend laterally as much as 30 meters (100 feet). Prairie dogs line their burrows with grass to insulate them, and the earth excavated from the burrow is piled up in mounds around the burrow's entrance. The prairie dogs use these carefully maintained mounds as observation posts.
The prairie dog is well adapted to predators. Using its dichromatic color vision, it can detect predators from afar and then alert other prairie dogs to the danger with a special, high-pitched call. Con Slobodchikoff and others assert that prairie dogs use a sophisticated system of vocal communication to describe specific predators. Prairie dogs also trim the vegetation around their colonies, perhaps to remove any cover for predators. Their burrows generally contain several routes of escape.
The prairie dog is chiefly herbivorous, though it eats some insects. It feeds primarily on grasses and, in the fall, broadleaf forbs. Prairie dogs have 1-6 pups (babies) yearly, which are born blind and furless and need about 30 days of close nurturing from their mother.
Ecologists consider this rodent to be a keystone species. They are an important prey species, being the primary diet in prairie species such as the black-footed ferret, the swift fox, the golden eagle, the badger, and the ferruginous hawk. Other species, such as the mountain plover and the burrowing owl, also rely on prairie dog burrows for nesting areas. Even grazing species such as bison, pronghorn and mule deer have shown a proclivity for grazing on the same land used by prairie dogs. It is believed that they prefer the vegetative conditions after prairie dogs have foraged through the area. Many creatures that prey on them are threatened.
However, prairie dogs are often identified as pests and exterminated from agricultural properties because they are capable of damaging crops, "causing undesirable spread of brush" and clearing the immediate area around their burrows of most vegetation. As a result prairie dog habitat has been impacted by direct removal by ranchers and farmers as well as the more obvious encroachment of urban development which has greatly reduced their populations. The largest remaining community comprises Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. In spite of human encroachment, prairie dogs have adapted, continuing to dig burrows in open areas of western cities.
One common concern which led to the widespread extermination of prairie dog colonies was that their digging activities could injure horses by fracturing their limbs. However, according to writer Fred Durso, Jr. of E Magazine, "after years of asking ranchers this question, we have found not one example. Another concern is their susceptibility to bubonic plague They can communicate by a loud cry
Until 2003, primarily black-tailed prairie dogs were collected from the wild for the exotic pet trade in Canada, the United States, Japan and Europe. They were removed from their underground burrows each spring, as young pups, with a large vacuum device. They are difficult to breed in captivity, but it has been done on several occasions. Removing them from the wild was a far more common method of supplying the market demand.
They can be difficult pets to care for, requiring regular attention and a very specific diet of grasses and hay. Each year they go into a period called rut that can last for several months, in which their personalities can drastically change, often becoming defensive or even aggressive. Despite their needs, prairie dogs are very social animals and come to almost seem like they treat humans as members of their colony, answering barks and chirps, and even coming when called by name.
In mid-2003, due to cross-contamination at a Madison, Wisconsin-area pet swap from an unquarantined Gambian pouched rat imported from Ghana, several prairie dogs in captivity acquired monkey pox, and subsequently a few humans were also infected. This led the CDC to institute an outright ban on the sale, trade, and transport of prairie dogs within the United States. The disease was never introduced to any wild populations. The European Union also banned importation of prairie dogs in response. While largely seen by exotic pet owners and vendors as unfair, the monkey pox scare was not the only zoonosis incident associated with prairie dogs.
Prairie dogs are also very susceptible to bubonic plague, and many wild colonies have been wiped out by it. Also, in 2002 a large group of prairie dogs in captivity in Texas were found to have contracted tularemia. Prairie dogs are natural carriers of plague, and the ban is believed to be in the best interests of protecting the public. There are no intentions of ever lifting it. The prairie dog ban is frequently cited by the CDC as a successful response to the threat of zoonosis.
Prairie dogs that were in captivity at the time of the ban in 2003 are allowed to be kept under a grandfather clause, but they may not be bought, traded, or sold and transport is only permitted to and from a veterinarian under properly quarantined procedures.
On September 8, 2008 the FDA & CDC rescinded the ban making it once again legal to capture, sell, and transport prairie dogs effective immediately. Federal Register / Vol. 73, No. 174 Although the federal ban has been lifted, several States still have their own ban on prairie dogs in place.
In companies that use large numbers of cubicles in a common space, employees sometimes use the term prairie dogging to refer to the action of several people simultaneously looking over the walls of their cubicles in response to a noise or other distraction. This action is thought to resemble the startle response of a group of prairie dogs.
A "surprised" prairie dog appeared in the internet video "Dramatic Chipmunk", which became a popular internet phenomenon.
They appear in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull film during the scenes in the desert.