The baby Prairie Dog count, at the El Paso Zoo, is up to nine! The babies can be seen, outside the burrows in their exhibit, hanging with the rest of their family...keeping mom on her toes.
Photo Credits: El Paso Zoo
Prairie Dogs are mostly herbivorous burrowing rodents that are native to the grasslands of North America. There are five species: Black-Tailed, White-Tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah and Mexican. In Mexico, Prairie Dogs are found primarily in the northern states, which lie at the southern end of the Great Plains of the United States. This area of Mexico includes: northeastern Sonora, north and northeastern Chihuahua, northern Coahuila, northern Nuevo Leon, and northern Tamaulipas. In the United States, the Prairie Dog’s range is primarily to the west of the Mississippi river, though they have been introduced in a few eastern locales.
Prairie dogs are named for their habitat and warning call, which sounds similar to a dog's bark. The name was in use as early as 1774. The 1804 journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition note that in September 1804, they “discovered a Village of an animal the French Call the Prairie Dog”. Its genus, Cynomys, derives from the Greek for “dog mouse”.
Prairie Dogs are stout-bodied rodents that grow to around 12 to 16 inches long (30 to 40 cm) and weigh between 1 and 3 lbs (0.5 and 1.5 kilograms). They are mainly herbivorous, feeding on grasses and small seeds, but they will occasionally eat insects.
Highly social, Prairie Dogs live in large colonies called “towns” and in collections of families that can span hundreds of acres. A Prairie Dog town may contain 15 to 26 family groups, made up of a series of burrows with mounded entrances.
Mother Prairie Dogs provide most of the care for the young. In addition to nursing, the mother’s job is to provide protection for the nursery chamber and collect grass for the nest. Males participate by providing defense for the family territories and maintaining the burrows. The young spend their first six weeks below ground, being nursed. When weaned, they will begin to surface from the burrow. By five months, they are considered fully grown and can fend for themselves.
Ecologists consider them to be a keystone species. They are included in the primary diet of other prairie species, such as: Black-Footed Ferret, Swift Fox, Golden Eagle, American Badger and Ferruginous Hawk.
The Prairie Dog’s existence on the Great Plains is also valuable to the Burrowing Owl, who relies on Prairie Dog burrows for nesting. However, the rodent is, in general, considered a pest in its native area and are often eliminated or relocated.