It’s spring. Prairie dogs are popping up along interchanges, freeways, prairie and grassland regions of North America. They are named prairie dogs because they bark like dogs. The Gunnison prairie dogs are here in New Mexico. They love to chatter, eat and play. They are a keystone animal species. The keystone animal of the sagebrush ecosystem plays a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community.
Prairie dogs make life possible for others, by creating the essential conditions. Many times the prairie dogs are the food source; top menu choice of the black-footed ferret, bald and golden eagles, feruginous hawks, owls, plovers, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and badgers.
Prairie dogs nibble and cut the grass around their burrow holes and this enables coneflowers, sneezeweed, prairie gentian and woolly actinella or sunflowers to grow. The camel crickets, grasshoppers and burrowing ants all love the flowers and soil conditions in the prairie dog town. A large cast of characters depend on the prairie dogs for food and shelter. Prairie dogs are their guarantee to a healthy life and a better chance for survival; this is why the prairie dog is the keystone animal of the grasslands and prairie.
The warning signal is their primary source of survival because it alerts the other prairie dogs to nearby danger. It can last for 30 minutes and can be heard nearly a mile away. As danger approaches, the intensity of the chirrup increases, and it ends after the prairie dog has entered its safe haven. Later the sentry dog will issue an all clear.
Studies have also shown prairie dogs can distinguish between the different colors of clothing people wear, and between people expressing threats such as carrying a gun and non-threatening behavior.
Yes, some prairie dogs carry ticks that cause diseases. Does the good outweigh the bad? Fate knows the answer and only time will tell.
Both of these pictures were taken in the City of Albuquerque within a half-mile of our house. The first prairie dog is in sentinel posture. The second shows four entrance-holes in a line and how they typically clear vegetation nearby to increase warning-distance.