Black tailed prairie dogScientific Name Cynomys ludovicianus

Conservation Status Least Concern

Appearance

Black tailed prairie dogs are coloured tan on the back with a lighter coloured belly. Two moults are undertaken each year which change the colour of the hair tips. During winter, they are tipped black changing to white in summer. The eyes are large and black.

The short tail measures up to 10cm (4in) in length and is coloured tan with the black tip from which their name comes.

Males are larger than the females. They measure 358-429mm (14.1-16.9in) compared to the females at between 340 and 400mm (13.4 And 15.7in). Males weigh between 0.6 and 1.5kg (1.32 and 3.3lb) with females weighing 0.77 and 1kg (1.69 and 2.2lb).

Lifespan

Females may live for up to 8 years while the males tend not to live past 5 years of age.

Diet

Black tailed prairie dogs are omnivores. The majority of their diet is grasses, leaves, stems, forbs, roots, herbs with an occasional insect. Diet changes through the seasons based on availability.

Most foraging takes place near their home burrow. It is only as food becomes scarce that they begin to search further afield.

Instead of drinking free water they obtain most of their needed moisture from the moist foods which they eat.

Habitat

North America is the native home of the black tailed prairie dog. Here they can be found throughout Mexico, Canada and the United States of America.

They previously had a much wider range but have been hunted extensively and it has now been reduced to areas where they are protected. They are hunted by ranchers who see them as a pest. Habitat loss and disease has also affected them.

Their home is the prairie amongst the short grasses. Most of their habitat is near river flats but not in moist areas.

Prairie dogs dig burrows where they live in groups. A raised mound at the entrance of the burrow allows them to survey the surrounding area for predators. Along the tunnels are separate areas in which they can sleep, rear young, defecate and store their food. The burrow may have up to 70 entrances and extend 5m (16.4ft) underground. By having numerous entrances they can avoid predators.

Reproduction

Male black tailed prairie dogs form a group known as a coterie with multiple females with which he will breed. On occasion two males live in a coterie and the females will mate with both.

Breeding takes place in the spring with females being receptive to mating for just one day per year. In some cases, if breeding is TBlack Tailed Prairie Dogunsuccessful in the first instance a second estrus cycle will occur after 13 days.

Gestation lasts 34-38 days after which a litter of between 3 and 5 in a burrow underground. Young are born blind and naked with the eyes taking 5 weeks to open and fur developing at 3 weeks old.

For the first 6 weeks, the kits live below ground. Once they emerge they may suckle from any of the lactating females in their coterie.

Sexual maturity is reached at two years old for most with some breeding for the first time at one year old. Those who mate in the first year are often not successful at giving birth.

Females will remain in their coterie for life. Males disperse to form their own coterie. Every 2 years’ males will move to a new coterie to reduce inbreeding.

Behaviour

Black tailed prairie dogs form small groups of coteries led by a male with multiple females and their young. Many coteries will live together in a group known as a town which may number into the hundreds of millions.

Males will defend their coteries against invading males while the females defend against other females especially during the breeding season. In this period, they may enter other females burrows to kill the pups.

The black tailed prairie dog is one of the only prairie dog species to not hibernate. Instead they may spend an extend period underground if the weather turns cold.

Activity takes place in the cool of the day while the middle of the day is spent resting underground. When feeding a sentry perches atop one of the mounds in their area and watches out for predators.

When a predator is spotted, they let out a warning call to alert other predators to the threat. They also make what is referred to as a jump-yip call. This involves standing on the mound, throwing back the head and emitting a loud bark.

Their calls do not simply refer to danger but can differentiate between different species of animal and their characteristics for instance large or small.

Predators of the prairie dog include hawks, bobcats, eagles, snakes, coyotes, badgers and black footed ferrets. Due to the large reduction in prairie dog numbers the numbers of black footed ferrets has also reduced.

They provide a benefit to their environment by trimming and fertilising the grass. This allows other animals to have access to the best areas of prairie to live in.

Quick Facts

The largest recorded prairie dog town contained about 400 million individual prairie dogs.

Black tailed prairie dogs are sometimes kept as pets.

The name prairie dog was derived from the early settlers believing their call sounded like that of a dog.

Photo Credits

Both Images – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service