I am not a dog! I am a rodent, related to ground squirrels, tree-squirrels, and rats and mice. There are five species of prairie dogs in North America, and of those, I am the one that lives at the highest elevation, in prairies above 5000 feet. In Wyoming, my close relatives, the black-tailed prairie dogs, live at lower elevations. You can tell us apart from the color of the tips of our tails. (Bet you can’t guess which color mine is!) Another difference between black- and white-tailed prairie dogs, is that we white tails hibernate in the winter. That’s because the winters are really cold and windy where we live. I have to eat A LOT of food, mostly plants, in the summer to survive the long winter. Getting fat is good for a white-tailed prairie dog! Then I go into torpor in one of the chambers of my burrow. Torpor means that my body temperature becomes very low and I become very quiet. I hibernate from 4 to 5 months (from October to March). Although I spend most of this time in torpor, every so often I wake up and warm up. In March, I start sleeping less and less, and on some days I even go out of the burrow to eat. In April, when the prairie starts to become green, I get out to eat the plants that germinate around my burrow. Black-tailed prairie dogs do not drop their body temperature in the winter, except if they can’t find any food.
During the spring and summer our colonies of burrows are busy places. There are always pups playing, wrestling, and chasing each other. Adults are always eating, but a few stand vigilant using a burrow mound as a lookout point. When a badger appears in the horizon or a golden eagle flies above the colony, our sentinels give a warning call and we all disappear into the burrows after making a big racket with our calls. Did you know that we have many different calls? We have a different call for each predator, from hawk to human. We even have different calls for coyotes and domestic dogs! Our warning calls sound like tiny barks -chee-chee-chee, which is why people call us dogs. We have to be vigilant all the time because everybody (it seems like) wants to eat us: Hawks and snakes eat our young, and eagles, badgers, foxes, and coyotes eat the grown-ups. Even though humans don’t eat us, some like to kill us, because they think we are pests, or they don’t think of us at all, and are just having fun shooting.
One of our predators is called the black-footed ferret. They are long and skinny so they can creep through our burrows, and have a black mask, like a bandit’s, around their eyes. They used to be very abundant, but because they eat only prairie dogs, as the number of prairie dog colonies decreased throughout the United States, their numbers decreased as well. They declined so much that everyone thought that they were extinct until a rancher’s dog found one in Meeteetse, Wyoming (in 1979), and then biologists found a small population there. This population was taken into captivity so that they could reproduce and repopulate the areas where they were once found. Now there are hundreds of black-footed ferrets successfully raising families in prairie dog colonies across the American west. I guess that makes humans happy, but nobody asked us prairie dogs.
Prairie dog colonies are home to a very large number of creatures that feed on them, feed around the colony for the plants that grow in the soils that they mix, and use the burrows for shelter. Prairie dog colonies are good places to find rattlesnakes, short-horned lizards, and burrowing owls. Without prairie dogs, the prairie would be a much less interesting place!