Prairie Dog Blog

prairie dog biology research

Prairie dog mythbusters August 14, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — lorensackett @ 01:51

Myth:  Prairie dogs carry diseases.

Mythbuster:  All animals, including humans, harbor a suite of bacteria.  Some are pathogenic, some are usually harmless but  cause illness when an individual’s immune system is weakened, and most bacteria are actually helpful (e.g. help digest food, fight off pathogens, etc).  Prairie dogs, like dogs and cattle, do carry bacteria known as Bartonella that may cause illnesses.  Prairie dogs are also known to contract sylvatic plague (the same as bubonic plague), caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.  However, they are not carriers of the disease; they are highly susceptible to it and die within a few days of contracting it.  Once plague enters a colony, almost all individuals are exposed and the entire colony will die out within a matter of weeks.  Thus, similar to humans, prairie dogs do not carry plague, they just contract it.  Plague is transmitted to prairie dogs by fleas, which do carry the disease.




Prairie dog reintroductions March 9, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — lorensackett @ 11:47

The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), though once found across western North America, was the target for eradication by those considering prairie dogs to be pests.  In the last two centuries, they have been reduced to less than 2% of their original numbers (Hoogland 2006).  Recently, they became extinct in Arizona.  The loss of prairie dogs in such a tremendous portion of their range has altered community structure of many grasslands.  Grasslands without prairie dogs may be dramatically different, but consequences of their removal have not been studied.

Because prairie dogs are an important component of grassland ecosystems (see previous post), managers are trying to protect their habitat where they are currently present.  In some cases, prairie dog reintroduction efforts have been launched in order to restore the function of grasslands.  For example, several reintroductions have occurred or are in the plans in Arizona, where black-tailed prairie dogs no longer occur.

You can watch a video of a prairie dog relocation effort here:

Prairie dog reintroductions (like prairie dog conservation in general) are controversial, particularly when destinations are near private land.  Ultimately, restoring grasslands to their natural state will require not only prairie dogs, but their natural predators and other species as well.


What exactly are prairie dogs anyway? December 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — lorensackett @ 16:05

Prairie dogs are a group of fossorial (burrowing) ground squirrels (family Sciuridae) that live in large colonies.  They are most closely related to marmots and other ground squirrels, and they are split into five species:  black-tailed prairie dogs (the most widespread and social species; Cynomys ludovicianus), Mexican prairie dogs (found in only a small region in Mexico; C. mexicanus), white-tailed prairie dogs (C. leucurus), Gunnison’s prairie dogs (C. gunnisoni), and Utah prairie dogs (C. parvidens).

Juvenile black-tailed prairie dog ready to submerge into its burrow if I get any closer

Adult white-tailed prairie dog, with painted markings for individual recognition, looking up towards our observation tower from outside its burrow

Prairie dogs are commonly, but mistakenly, referred to as gophers, which are mouse-like rodents in the family Geomyidae (e.g., see  Pocket gophers are more highly fossorial than prairie dogs, and spend almost all of their time underground.  They are also solitary, and males interact with females only during mating. (more…)


Stories from the field: site AZ7 June 3, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — lorensackett @ 16:50

Constant entertainment at this site.  I called a local biologist, who seemed interested and receptive to our work, and informed me that the land manager would be thrilled to know I wanted to catch prairie dogs.  When I arrived with my traps, I soon found out she was thrilled because she thought I might be able to “get rid of them.”  Nope, permit doesn’t cover that.  And, even if it did, I am not in favor of killing animals just because they get in your way (not a particularly progressive management policy).  Fortunately, because the permit had already been issued and I was there in person, she agreed to let me conduct my research even if I wasn’t going to kill prairie dogs.  She led me out to the colony, which I had been informed was next to a sheep pasture.  But when we arrived at the sheep pasture, we kept walking.  And then we climbed over the fence, into the sheep pasture.  Yep, this was where I was going to attempt to catch animals without disturbing them– in burrows surrounded by almost no vegetation because it is grazed by sheep (and goats)– and without being disturbed myself by livestock chasing me as I leave a scent of grain behind.

It gets better.



Stories from the field: site AZ4 May 31, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — lorensackett @ 09:19

Welcome to Springerville, AZ.  This lovely little town is a nestled in the forested hills of southeastern Arizona, a green oasis in the middle of a desert.  Still, the town itself is not much to look at (although Java Blues, the coffeshop/restaurant/bar on the main drag is pretty good, and plays great music).  There is a small prairie dog colony up on Forest Service west of town, but the site is remote and the animals cover a large area despite being few in number.  Yes, in hindsight, that colony would be better than the one recovering from plague (I presume) and constantly guarding against people (it is at a recreation area).

However, only hindsight is 20/20.  My actual vision is about 20/600 or so, and my figurative vision is usually better, but sometimes not by a whole lot.  (more…)


Stories from the field: site NM24 May 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — lorensackett @ 22:24

Field work is supposed to be straightforward, hard work, continue until a job is done, no complications.  Just pack up the truck and be prepared, and things will all go smoothly.  Right?

Borrowed truck equipped with trapping supplies, sleeping supplies, food and lots of reading material



The Perks of Being a Biologist May 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — lorensackett @ 23:23

I love my job.  Well, it has ups and downs… but overall, I am pretty lucky.

Today has brought me to Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site and Canyon de Chelly ( pronounced shay) National Monument, two beautiful places in eastern Arizona that are off the beaten track.  Hubbell has a collection of historical wagons, farm equipment and supplies used by early settlers (upon looking closely at the wagons, I instantly realized why broken axles were  a regular part of the Oregon Trail game… these were built long before the invention of shock absorbers, and any stress was taken directly by the axles).