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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What in the world is a Prairie Dog Town?

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs
When we visited the Great Plains, we saw some amazing little critters.  They are called Black-tailed prairie dogs.  They live underground in burrows.  They dig tunnels to connect their burrows to other prairie dog homes.  All the tunnels and homes make a prairie dog town.    

Prairie dogs live in community.  Most of their towns cover around an acre of land.  Some towns can be really big.  The largest prairie dog town ever was discovered by pioneers in West Texas.  The town covered an area 100 miles wide by 25 miles long.  It was home to around 400 million prairie dogs!

When prairie dogs see something strange near their homes, they bark.  When the coast is clear, prairie dogs raise their arms and yip.  Soon other prairie dogs join in and raise their arms and yip.  It is fun to watch them.  Here's a short video to show you their funny "high five" yip:

Pioneers thought that these barking animals were little dogs.  Prairie dogs are not dogs.  They are actually members of the rodent family.  They are herbivores, which means that they eat only vegetable materials like grasses, roots, and seeds.

Like wolves, many people don't like prairie dogs.  Some people see them as pests.  They think that prairie dogs ruin the earth because they dig so many tunnels.  They think that grass won't grow in prairie dog towns.  They fear that if grass won't grow then there won't be enough food for cattle and sheep.  

Scientists have discovered that the opposite is true.  They have learned that prairie dogs are very special to the environment.  Prairie dogs are called a keystone species.  A keystone species means that prairie dogs are so important to an environment that if they do not survive, it could ruin an entire ecosystem. 

Without prairie dogs, the earth suffers.  Prairie dogs help the soil when they dig their burrows.  They plant seeds.  They help grass and special plants to grow.  Their tunnels help more rain to soak into the earth.  

Without prairie dogs, animals suffer.  Prairie dogs are a food source for many animals like coyotes, rattlesnakes, eagles, and hawks.  Their burrows are homes to other creatures, like owls and ferrets.

Ferrets are a good example of what can happen when there are no prairie dogs.  Ferrets live in prairie dog burrows.  Their main diet is eating prairie dogs.  People killed so many prairie dogs that both prairie dogs and ferrets almost became extinct. In 1986, only 18 black-footed ferrets were alive.  In order to save these ferrets, scientists learned that they needed to save prairie dogs.  To learn more about prairie dogs and ferrets, just click here:  http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_w7000_0023_ferret_prairiedog.pdf  

When people learned how good prairie dogs can be to the environment, they began to let the prairie dogs live and build their prairie dog towns.  National parks saved their prairie dog towns.  They began reintroducing ferrets to these areas.  Today, ferrets are beginning to make a comeback, too.  

If you would like to learn more about Black-tailed prairie dogs, just click on one of these sites:

Here's a great activity book on prairie dogs:  http://prairiedogcoalition.org/docs/coloringBbook.pdf

If you have prairie dogs in your area, click on this site to learn how you can help scientists learn more about them:

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