Lifespan: 3-5 years
Wild Diet: Grasses, other plants and occasionally insects
Zoo Diet: Rodent chow, produce, mealworms
Predators: Typically black-footed ferrets, weasels, fox, coyotes, bobcats and birds of prey
IUCN Status: Least Concern
Habitat/Range: Shortgrass and prairie areas of North America from southern Canada to northern Mexico.
Characteristics: Prairie dogs are rodents and essentially, chubby ground squirrels. Their coat colors are often a mix of brown, black, gray, and white. Black-tailed prairie dog have a characteristic black-tipped tail. Prairie dogs grow to a length of 15 in. long and 3-4 in. at the shoulder. On average they weigh two to four pounds. Males tend to be 15 percent heavier than females. Males usually don't live more than 5 years and females can sometimes live up to 8 years.
Behavior: Prairie dogs are diurnal (active during the day), burrowing animals that live in large colonies also called towns. They are highly social and sometimes towns can contain thousands of residents. Within a prairie dog town are family groups called coteries. Each coterie defends their territory, usually up to an acre in size. Coterie dens may have as many as 70 burrow entrances. Prairie Dogs spend much time identifying and grooming each other and defending their boundaries. Prairie dogs' methods of selective browsing and scattering of the raw, excavated earth from their tunnels encourages fast-growing weeds, which they later feed on.
Reproduction: Breeding season for prairie dogs typically occurs from late February to early March. Gestation lasts about 35 days, during which time females create a nesting area within the coterie territory. Females usually produce 3-4 pups, born underground and are nursed exclusively by their mother for up to 50 days. At that time the young emerge from the den and communal care, including nursing, begins. Young are sexually mature in one to two years.
Conservation: Black-tail prairie dogs lived in vast "towns" across the western short-grass prairies less than 100 years ago. As the west developed, prairie dogs were often removed from their homes or died of disease. Today, remaining colonies are fragmented and prairie dogs now occupy less than 2% of their former range.
Prairie dogs are important because they are a keystone species for their ecosystem. More than 140 species of animals rely on their presence in one way or another, including the endangered black-footed ferrets that feed primarily on prairie dogs. Prairie dogs have an uncertain future. Though they are an integral part of our native grasslands, there are challenges with their existence in areas planned for development and on farm and ranchlands. Plague also threatens their future. Large complexes of prairie dog towns are key to the survival of many wildlife species including the full recovery of the endangered black-footed ferret.
Biologists are currently working on a vaccine to protect prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets from plague. Their future in the wild depends on groups such as farmers, ranchers, hunters, developers and conservationists to work together and compromise on a plan to ensure prairie dogs continue their crucial role in grassland ecosystems for generations to come.