Prairie dogs are burrowing rodents that live in the grasslands of western North America. Adults stand about 12 inches (30 centimeters) tall and weigh about one to three pounds (454 to 1,362 grams). They feed on grasses, other plants, and occasionally insects from dawn until dusk and sleep in their burrows at night. Prairie dogs are actually related to squirrels: early explorers thought their alarm calls sounded like a dogs bark, hence their name.
Scientists recognize five different species of prairie dogs: black-tailed, Gunnisons, Utah, white-tailed, and Mexican. Four of the species live in western states such as Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming; the fifth lives in Mexico.
Prairie dogs live in large colonies that are also called towns or villages. Undisturbed colonies have thousands of residents and extend for miles in all directions. Within colonies, prairie dogs live in family groups called coteries. Each coterie defends a home territory of about one acre (.40 hectare) from surrounding coteries. The typical coterie territory contains about 70 burrow entrances.
As many as 26 prairie dogs sometimes live in one coterie, but most coteries contain a single breeding male, three or four breeding females, and several nonbreeding yearlings and juveniles. Coterie members share burrows within the home territory, with one exception. For about six weeks after birth, mothers do not allow entry into the nursery burrow. Male prairie dogs, which are about 15 percent heavier than females, rarely live longer than five years. Some females, however, live for eight years.
Predators of the prairie dog include coyotes, bobcats, badgers, black-footed ferrets, golden eagles, and prairie falcons. To defend against so many enemies, prairie dogs commonly perch on the large mounds at burrow entrances and look for danger. A prairie dog that sees a predator commonly warns the others with a loud alarm call. Because the prairie dog defense system is so good, predators frequently fail and must look elsewhere for dinner.
When prairie dogs from different coteries meet, they stare at each other, chatter their teeth, and flare their tails. Such territorial disputes commonly last for more than 30 minutes and sometimes include fights and chases.
In 1900 an estimated five billion prairie dogs lived in North America. Unfairly, ranchers have viewed prairie dogs as pests that compete with their livestock for food. The prairie dog population has plunged by 98 percent. The Mexican prairie dog is endangered, and the Utah prairie dog is threatened. Without a doubt, humankind is the prairie dogs worst enemy.