Prairie dogs (genus Cynomys) are a type of ground squirrel found in the Great Plains, mountains and high deserts of North America. They are particularly known for the large underground towns they build, often home to hundreds of prairie dogs. Roughly the size of a rabbit, Prairie dogs are named for both the region in which they usually live and for their call, which sounds somewhat like a small dog.
Prairie dogs are usually between 12-16 inches long and weigh 1-3lbs. Males are much larger than females, in some cases more than double their size. This is most apparent in white-tailed Prairie dogs and least noticeable in the more common black-tailed variety. Prairie dogs are almost exclusively herbivores, eating mainly grass, roots and seeds, but will occasionally eat insects as well.
Prairie dogs are known to be both playful and affectionate towards each other. They will often greet one another by nuzzling, which is called a prairie dog kiss. Young prairie dogs can often be spotted playing near their burrows, adding to this animal’s attraction with tourists.
All prairie dogs live in burrows. Usually a family unit consisting of one male, two females and their offspring will live together. This burrow may include several different rooms including listening posts, nurseries, and even toilets. The best known prairie dog, the black tailed variety, lives in large towns consisting of several hundred animals, with many hundreds of entrances and rooms.
Because of the prairie dog’s destructive digging and their proximity to commercial farming and agriculture, they are often regarded by ranchers as pests. It is estimated that around 98% of the existing prairie dog population was exterminated in the 20thcentury. However, prairie dogs have remained resilient, building towns in open areas of major Western cities and continuing to fascinate us with their unique personalities.
PRAIRIE DOG FACTS
- The largest recorded prairie dog town was in Texas. It covered 25,000 square miles and was home to four hundred million prairie dogs.
- Prairie dog towns help the environment by funneling rainwater into the water table which helps prevent erosion.
- Male prairie dogs often have to fight other males up to 20 times a day to defend their territory.
Mammals of Texas