9 Facts About Prairie Dogs

Group of prairie dogs standing at the opening of a mound. Four on hind legs, one on all four, one emerging from the mound
StefaniePayne / Getty Images

Prairie dogs are burrowing ground squirrels endemic to the central and western prairies and desert grasslands of North America. Of the five prairie dog species, two are endangered. Their social antics entertain onlookers, and the nine species (including eagles and badgers) that rely on them as a primary food source prove them to be vastly important. Birds use their burrows as nests and grazing animals prefer the grass around those burrows because it's more succulent, nutritious, and digestible.

Needless to say, prairie dogs are integral to grassland ecosystems. Here are nine fascinating facts about the quirky and exceedingly valuable animals.

1. Prairie Dogs' Biggest Threat Is Humans

The five prairie dog species — black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison's, Utah, and Mexican — once numbered in the hundreds of millions. Hunting, poisoning, and habitat loss decreased populations up to 95 percent.

The Mexican and Utah species are listed as endangered by the IUCN. Habitat loss due to urbanization and farms hurt both species, but extensive poisoning programs also take place. The Mexican prairie dog has lost at least 65 percent of its former range, and the remainder is threatened by development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the Utah prairie dog population is rebounding. The remaining species are currently listed as "least concern," but all species have decreasing populations. Sylvatic plague, brought to North America from Europe, wipes out entire colonies.

2. They Rarely Transmit Plague to Humans

Like many other rodents, prairie dogs are susceptible to the plague. Their response is dramatic: More than 95 percent of prairie dogs will die within 78 hours of plague infection. If an active prairie dog colony suddenly becomes quiet, that's an indicator of plague.

Plague, which is caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria, is transmitted by infected fleas. Though a prairie dog can infect humans directly, that rarely happens as prairie dogs avoid people. Cases linked to prairie dogs are generally from pets picking up fleas from infected areas. A vaccine to prevent outbreaks is showing promise.

3. They Have Well-Organized Homes

Prairie dogs live in complex underground burrows with designated areas for nurseries, sleeping, and toilets. The tunnel system is designed to allow air to flow through them, providing ventilation; this is facilitated by angling the mound at the top to utilize prevailing winds. To provide safety, every exit also has a listening post, and a sentry is found at the opening of active burrows.

4. They Live in Towns

Panoramic View Of Prairie Dog Town Along The Loop Road, Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Federica Grassi / Getty Images

Prairie dogs are social animals, and they live in family groups called coteries that typically contain an adult male, two or three adult females, and their young. Coteries are grouped together into wards, and several wards of prairie dogs make up a town or colony.

The largest town ever recorded belonged to a large group of black-tailed prairie dogs in Texas and covered 25,000 square miles.

5. They Greet with a Kiss

Prairie dogs greet-kissing outside a burrow
Stefania Pelfini, La Waziya Photography / Getty Images

Prairie dogs appear to kiss when they come and go in the area around their burrow. Researchers call this behavior a "greet-kiss." When they do so, they'll touch noses and lock their teeth with one another, which allows them to determine if they're members of the same family group. If they belong to the same family, they continue with their day. If not related, they will often fight or chase the interloper from the area. Some prairie dogs are bridges between groups. Researchers are interested in those because removing the bridge animals may slow or stop the plague's spread.

6. They're Ecologically Important

group of burrowing owls at prairie dog burrow entrance with prairie dog in background
Walt Eastland / 500px / Getty Images

As a keystone species for the prairies, entire ecosystems rely on these tiny mammals. Their tunneling aerates the soil, and their dung is high in nitrogen, which improves soil quality. Grasses and other plants are kept clipped short, so prairie dogs and other prey species have a clear view of predators. Their burrows provide homes for snakes, spiders, burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, and more. Badgers not only take advantage of prairie dog architecture by moving into burrows, but they also make meals out of the prairie dogs themselves. Prairie dogs are also prey to coyotes, foxes, snakes, birds of prey, and bobcats.

7. They Have Their Own Language

Prairie dogs' means of communication is said to be even more complex than that of chimpanzees and dolphins. Researcher Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University found that the animals have barks and chirps that communicate numerous messages.

Many messages alert the colony about predators. Prairie dogs embed information about the predator's size, color, direction, and speed in a single bark. Colonies consistently use the same barks to describe the same predators, even if it is a new threat. Prairie dogs even have a specific call that describes humans with guns.

8. They Have a Contagious Jump-Yip

Black-tail Prairie Dogs standing on hind legs with arms and necks stretched up making a yip call
Mark Newman / Getty Images

Prairie dogs are under constant threat from predators like hawks and coyotes, so they protect themselves by staying in continuous communication. This often results in a contagious jump-yip behavior where one prairie dog's action is mimicked by others. One animal stands on its hind legs, stretches its arms out, throws back its head, and yips. Upon hearing the sound, other prairie dogs copy the behavior, and jump-yips spread throughout the colony.

9. They Kill Other Animals To Eliminate Competition

Prairie dogs don't kill many animals for food. As herbivores, their diet consists mostly of grasses, plants, and leaves, though the occasional insect may also feature. However, they can be quite fierce when protecting their turf. Prairie dogs have been known to kill ground squirrels to eliminate competition. They'll usually discard the carcass, only sometimes consuming small portions of their kills. This pays off for the prairie dogs, though: Females that kill other species tend to have healthier offspring, regardless of other factors. This is likely due to the resulting increase in available food.

They also kill young of their own species, and when they do, they generally eat all or part of the carcass.

Save the Prairie Dogs

  • If you live among prairie dogs, provide areas with clear sightlines for the animals. Allow long grasses to grow to prevent prairie dogs from spreading into areas where they are not wanted.
  • Donate or symbolically adopt a prairie dog from conservation organizations like Defenders of Wildlife to help restore the prairie dog's habitat.
  • Encourage government officials to use humane management plans.
  • Let your legislators know that you support strengthening the Endangered Species Act and other legislation to protect wildlife and biodiversity.