Community Members, Part I
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There was a time not so long ago when vast tracts of the grassy plains east of the Rocky Mountains and the grasslands of the inter-mountain West were covered with communities of prairie dogs. These “towns” sometimes numbered tens of thousands of individuals and there were untold millions of prairie dogs. White settlers systematically exterminated these animals. They were considered to be worthless, and worse: ranchers saw them as competing with livestock for the grass and they regarded prairie dog burrows as hazardous to cattle and horses. By the mid-20th Century most prairie dogs had been exterminated. Their once enormous towns were diminished to scattered communities. In parts of the West, such as southern Arizona, the prairie dogs were eliminated entirely.
In reality, prairie dogs anchored entire ecosystems. Their grazing did not destroy the grass: to the contrary, grazing stimulated new growth and produced healthier and thicker plants. Their burrows aerated the soil. They posed far less of a hazard to livestock than was assumed. Bison deliberately grazed in prairie dog towns because the grass was healthier and more nutritious there. The bison were smart enough not to step in prairie dog burrows. Other species were dependent on prairie dogs for survival and sustenance. Where the prairie dogs were eliminated these species — including Ferruginous Hawks and Black-footed Ferrets — disappeared as well.
Some efforts are being made to revive prairie dogs. In the grasslands of southeastern Arizona the once-exterminated local species of prairie dog, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, is being reintroduced in limited numbers (there are several other species of prairie dogs, all of them relatively similar in appearance to the Black-tailed Prairie Dog). Earlier this week I visited one of their towns.
Prairie dogs are rodents and related to squirrels. They are relatively large for rodents. An adult Black-tailed Prairie Dog is more than a foot long and weighs about a pound. They are highly social animals. Within each colony are numerous extended family groups consisting of parents and offspring, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. They build communal burrows with multiple openings and the burrows are extensive and interconnected. A burrow system may involve hundreds of feet of passages and chambers, sometimes constructed in multiple underground layers. Prairie dog society is complex and is still being researched. Entire books have been written about these animals’ societies.
They are ever alert for signs of danger. Often, a prairie dog will sit on the edge of its burrow, scanning the environment for danger signs. If it spots an interloper or potential predator it gives a warning “bark” that alerts nearby prairie dogs. They in turn relay the message of danger and, within seconds, the entire town is alerted.
These are highly intelligent animals. Researchers are only beginning to understand just how intelligent they are. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the astonishing story of prairie dog language.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 400 DO + 1.4X Extender, M setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/400.