If I described a highly social mammal with dense settlements and a sophisticated language; an animal that modifies its environment and has huge effects on the species around it, you might think I was talking about humans right? If so, you’d guess wrong. The animal described is actually the humble prairie dog.
We tend to dismiss rodents as dumb “vermin,” underestimating their capabilities and role in the ecosystem. But Colorado’s largest rodent, the beaver, is arguably nature’s next best engineer after humans. Likewise, the prairie dog has abilities that might surprise you. When a prairie dog sees a predator, it calls out a warning.
Prairie Dog warning calls, which sound like “chee-chee-chee,” mean far more than a vague “watch out.” They communicate specific information about the threat. Prairie dogs give different calls to warn of hawks vs. badgers vs. snakes and neighboring dogs hearing those calls take the appropriate evasive action. Biologists have determined that subtle differences between calls can even distinguish between coyotes and domestic dogs. They have a specific call for “human” too and variations in this call even communicate a description of the human. Prairie dogs can distinguish between clothing colors and tall vs. short and skinny vs. fat. So when my son tries to sneak up on a prairie dog and it begins calling, it’s likely telling its neighbors: “Watch out! Short, skinny human in a blue shirt headed our way!” This level of sophistication in language is something biologists once though was exclusive to primates, or even just humans, but we are now discovering that many animals are “saying” much more than we think.
Prairie dogs are what biologists call a “keystone species,” meaning that they have a disproportionately large effect on the plants and animals around them. Their grazing significantly affects the types of vegetation that grow in the vicinity of their towns, and their burrowing improves soil turnover and quality. Many animals are dependent on prairie dogs. Burrowing owls, mountain plovers, and swift fox depend on the unique habitat that prairie dog towns provide. Prairie dogs are important prey for golden eagles, prairie falcons, and badgers, among others. They are especially important to the endangered black-footed ferret, whose diet may consist of up to 90% prairie dog. In addition, ferrets sleep and raise their young in abandoned prairie dog burrows.
As human towns have spread across their habitat, prairie dog towns have struggled. It is believed that their populations were once in the billions, but some species have suffered population declines of up to 98%. In addition to habitat loss due to development, prairie dogs are frequently poisoned as pests or shot for recreation. It was believed that they competed with livestock for forage and that their burrows posed a leg-breaking hazard for cattle and horses. However reports of injuries due to prairie dog burrows are very rare. In addition, research suggests that prairie dogs may actually improve forage for livestock. Both wild grazers such as antelope, as well as domestic livestock, seem to prefer to forage in prairie dog towns. Prairie dogs improve vegetation quality by aerating the soil with their digging, fertilizing plants with their waste and clipping vegetation low leading to tender, nutritious regrowth.
Humans also brought disease to prairie dog towns, including the infamous bubonic plague. Plague is spread via flea bites and the social prairie dog is very susceptible. The disease will kill up 90% of animals in an infected town and has decimated their population. Plague outbreaks still occur in Colorado today though human infection is rare. However, this past July, three people on the Front Range contracted plague via their dog. It is believed that the dog was bitten by an infected flea it picked up in a prairie dog town. Unfortunately the dog died, however the humans recovered with antibiotic treatment. Many mammals besides prairie dogs can carry plague, so eradicating prairie dogs will not eliminate this disease. The best way to avoid infection is to keep yourself and your pets out of prairie dog towns.
So if there is a prairie dog town near you, it is best to respect your neighbor’s space. Still, if you are a fan of people watching, you might try prairie dog watching someday. There is actually much more going on the in the prairie dog town next door than you might imagine.
An edited version of the article first appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on October 15, 2014.