These charismatic, rabbit-sized rodents live on North America's prairies and open grasslands in only a fraction of their former numbers.
Prairie dogs live in underground burrows, extensive warrens of tunnels and chambers marked by many mounds of packed earth at their surface entrances. Burrows have defined nurseries, sleeping quarters, and even toilets. They also feature listening posts near exits, so animals can safely keep tabs on the movements of predators outside. Prairie dogs spend a lot of time building and rebuilding these dwellings. Other animals benefit from their labors. Burrows may be shared by snakes, burrowing owls, and even rare black-footed ferrets, which hunt prairie dogs in their own dwellings.
Family groups (a male, a few females, and their young) inhabit burrows and cooperate to share food, chase off other prairie dogs, and groom one another. These group members even greet one another with a prairie dog kiss or nuzzle! Young pups are very playful and can often been seen romping near their burrows.
Black-tailed prairie dogs, the best known of the five prairie dog species, live in larger communities called towns, which may contain many hundreds of animals. Typically they cover less than half a square mile (1.3 square kilometers), but historically they could be enormous. The largest recorded prairie dog town covered some 25,000 square miles (65,000 square kilometers). That Texas town was home to perhaps four hundred million prairie dogs!
Another prairie dog species, the white-tailed prairie dog, lives in the western mountains. These rodents do not gather in large towns but maintain more scattered burrows. All species hunker down in winter and burn the reserves of fat they have stored during more plentiful seasons. White-tails may hibernate for up to six months on their mountain plains, while their black-tailed cousins sometimes emerge to feed on especially warm days.
These large squirrels emerge from their burrows in daylight to forage and feed on grasses, roots, and seeds. They communicate with loud cries. A warning cry, for example, will send a town's denizens hustling to their holes at the approach of a badger, coyote, or other predator. A second, "all-clear" call alerts the community when the danger has passed.
Much of the Great Plains has been converted to farming or pastureland, and prairie dogs are not often welcome in such places. Because of their destructive landscaping, they are often killed as pests. During the 20th century, about 98 percent of all prairie dogs were exterminated, and their range has shrunk to perhaps five percent of its historic spread.