BALTIMORE (WHTM) — A prairie dog village is one of the first things you see when you visit the Baltimore Zoo. They get their name because (1) they live in prairies, and (2) they make a high-pitched barking sound when alarmed.
But prairie dogs are not dogs, they’re squirrels. They’re classified with marmots (such as groundhogs) and chipmunks as part of the ground squirrel tribe Marmotini, in the larger squirrel family Sciuridae. Other names for them are barking squirrel, prairie ground squirrel, wishtonwish, mound yapper, yaprat, yek-yek, tousa, pispiza, ping-sping-sa, and sod poodle.
There are five species of prairie dog: Gunnison’s prairie dog, white-tailed prairie dog, Mexican prairie dog, Utah prairie dog, and the black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicianus, the most widespread species and the one on display at the zoo.
Out in the wild, prairie dogs live in large colonies which can span hundreds of acres and contain millions of animals. The colonies are subdivided into individual family territories known as coteries. The entrances to the burrows can be flat or mounded — some of the mounds can be 3 feet high. The prairie dogs come outside to look for food, mostly plants with the occasional insect. While most are eating, some will keep watch, ready to sound an alert when a predator is spotted. (They seem to have different calls for different predators.)
The black-tailed prairie dogs have suffered badly at the hands of humans. The best estimates are that they numbered over 5 billion animals 200 years ago; since then, their numbers have dropped 98%. Farmers worried they would devastate crops, and ranchers feared their burrow holes would break the legs of cattle and horses. Prairie dogs were shot, trapped, and poisoned. They lost land to agricultural and urban development and collection for the wild animal trade. And diseases, most notably the bubonic plague, have wiped out entire colonies.
The loss of prairie dogs affects more than the prairie dogs themselves. They are what scientists call a “keystone species,” one whose removal causes major disruption to an environment. Prairie dogs are a primary food source for a number of predators such as the swift fox, red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, American badger, bobcat, and coyote. (The black-footed ferret was almost driven to extinction by the drop in prairie dog numbers.) Other species, such as the burrowing owl and mountain plover, nest in the burrows.
Attitudes are starting to change. It turns out that removing prairie dogs allows the growth of brush in grazing areas, which is often more expensive and troublesome to deal with than the prairie dogs themselves. Also, the number of cattle and horses injured by prairie dog holes is much lower than was originally feared. The prairie dogs themselves are showing some flexibility and adaptability; colonies are showing up in open areas near and in cities.
And as it turns out, black-tailed prairie dogs breed pretty successfully in zoos. (You’ll notice some babies in the video.) This gives them another location from which to recover while giving the humans who will ultimately decide their fate a chance to meet one of the most important creatures holding the prairie ecosystems together.
Besides, they’re really fun to watch.