Prairie dogs are burrowing rodents that live in large colonies in the grasslands of central and western North America. There are five species of prairie dogs: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Mexican and Utah. The most common species is the black-tailed prairie dog, the only species of prairie dog found within the vast Great Plains region of North America.
© Scott Carr / National Geographic Stock
Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species because their colonies create islands of habitats that benefit approximately 150 other species. They are also a food source for many animals, including coyotes, eagles, badgers and critically endangered black-footed ferrets . Many species, like black-footed ferrets and tiger salamanders, use their burrows as homes. Prairie dogs even help aerate and fertilize the soil, allowing a greater diversity of plants to thrive.
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 a 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.
Did You Know?
The largest recorded black-tailed prairie dog town was about 100 miles long, found in western Texas.
Habitat & Range
Black-tailed prairie dog colonies were once found across the Great Plains from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Their colonies probably once occupied 40-80 million acres within this 400-million-acre region, and were often tens of miles long. Today their small, scattered colonies occupy only 1-2 million acres. They were eradicated completely from Arizona, but were recently reintroduced to that state in one small area. Black-tailed prairie dogs survive in small numbers (relative to historic figures) in 11 U.S. states, 1 Mexican state 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 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 born in April or May
Litter size: 3-4 pups average, range of 1-8