Basic Facts About Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs
The black-tailed prairie dog is a member of the squirrel family. Of the five species of prairie dogs in western North America, only the black-tailed prairie dog lives in the Great Plains. It has a black-tipped tail, brown fur, large black eyes and short legs and sharp claws developed for digging burrows.
© Scott Carr / National Geographic Stock
Black-tailed prairie dogs mainly consume grasses, sedges, forbs (flowering plants), roots and seeds, though they are also known to eat insects.
Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the hundreds of millions – maybe even over 1 billion – and were possibly the most abundant mammal in North America. But due to a variety of reasons, their numbers have decreased by over 95%. Today they may number around 10-20 million.
Black-tailed prairie dog colonies were once found across the Great Plains from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Their colonies once occupied probably 40-80 million acres within this 400 million acre region, and were often tens of miles long. Today their small, scattered colonies occupy 1-2 million acres within this region. They have been eradicated completely from Arizona but survive in small numbers (relative to historic numbers) in the other 10 U.S. states, 2 Mexican states, and 1 Canadian province.
Prairie dogs are colonial animals that live in complex networks of tunnels with multiple openings. Colonies are easily identified by the raised-burrow entrances that give the diminutive prairie dogs some extra height when acting as sentries and watching for predators or signs of danger. The tunnels contain separate "rooms" for sleeping, rearing young, storing food, and eliminating waste.
Prairie dogs are very social and live in closely knit family groups called "coteries." Coteries usually contain an adult male, one or more adult females and their young offspring. These coteries are grouped together into wards (or neighborhoods) and several wards make up a colony or town.
Prairie dogs have a complex system of communication that includes a variety of pitched warning barks that signal different types of predators. Prairie dogs earned their name from settlers traveling across the plains who thought that these warning calls sounded similar to dogs barking.
Mating Season: March.
Gestation: 33-38 days. Pups are born in April or May.
Litter size: 3-4 pups average, range of 1-8.
Height: 12 inches (when standing upright).
Length: 12-15 inches (including a 2-3 inch tail).
Weight: 1-3 lbs.
Lifespan: 3-5 years in the wild; 8 years in captivity.