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).
Prairie dogs are commonly, but mistakenly, referred to as gophers, which are mouse-like rodents in the family Geomyidae (e.g., see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Geomys_bursarius.jpg). 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.
In contrast, prairie dogs are highly social. They can live in colonies with thousands of individuals, and prior to human eradication, estimates of some black-tailed prairie dog colony sizes were in the millions (Hoogland 2006). Prairie dogs spend much of their time above ground foraging for food (primarily grasses) and scanning for predators. Because they are numerous and conspicuous, they are an important food source for black-footed ferrets, hawks, coyotes, rattlesnakes, badgers and other predators.
In addition to their importance as a food item for predators, prairie dogs aerate soil and increase plant diversity and growth rates by bringing nutrients to the surface through their burrowing activity. They also provide habitat for other rodents, rabbits, amphibians and burrowing owls, which share their burrows. Because of their pronounced effects on grassland ecosystems and other species, prairie dogs have been dubbed “keystone species” (Miller et al. 1994). Several species are listed or have been proposed for listing as endangered species.
Hoogland, J.L. 2006. Conservation of the black-tailed prairie dog: saving North America’s western grasslands. Island Press, Washington D.C.
Miller, B., G. Ceballos and R. Reading 1994. The prairie dog and biotic diversity. Conservation Biology 8: 863-894.