Prairie dogs (genus Cynomys) are burrowing rodents native to the grasslands of North America. The five different species of prairie dogs are: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison's, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs. They are a type of ground squirrel, found in the United States, Canada and Mexico. In Mexico, prairie dogs are found primarily in the northern states, which lie at the southern end of the Great Plains: northeastern Sonora, north and northeastern Chihuahua, northern Coahuila, northern Nuevo León, and northern Tamaulipas. In the US, they range primarily to the west of the Mississippi River, though they have also been introduced in a few eastern locales. They are herbivorous.
Prairie dogs are named for their habitat and warning call, which sounds similar to a dog's bark. The name was in use at least as early as 1774. The 1804 journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition note that in September 1804, they "discovered a Village of an animal the French Call the Prairie Dog." Its genus, Cynomys, derives from the Greek for "dog mouse".
In companies that use large numbers of cubicles in a common space, employees sometimes use the term prairie dogging to refer to the action of several people simultaneously looking over the walls of their cubicles in response to a noise or other distraction. This action is thought to resemble the startled response of a group of prairie dogs.
The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) was first described by Lewis and Clark in 1804 during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lewis described it in more detail in 1806, calling it the "barking squirrel".
FAMILY SCIURIDAE (squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, and prairie dogs)
Gunnison's prairie dog, Cynomys gunnisoni
White-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys leucurus
Black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicianus
Mexican prairie dog, Cynomys mexicanus
Utah prairie dog, Cynomys parvidens
About 14 other genera in subfamily
Prairie dogs are chiefly herbivorous, though they eat some insects. They feed primarily on grasses; in the fall, they eat broadleaf forbs. In the winter, lactating and pregnant females supplement their diets with snow for extra water. They also will eat roots, seeds, fruit, and buds. Grasses of various species are eaten. Black-tailed prairie dogs in South Dakota eat western bluegrass, blue grama, buffalo grass, six weeks fescue, and tumblegrass, while Gunnison’s prairie dogs eat rabbit basin, tumbleweeds, dandelions, saltbush, and cacti in addition to buffalo grass and blue grama.
Prairie dogs live mainly at altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 ft above sea level. The areas where they live can get as warm as 100°F in the summer and as cold as −35°F in the winter. As prairie dogs live in areas prone to environmental threats, including hailstorms, blizzards, and floods, as well as drought and prairie fires, burrows provide important protection for them. Prairie dog burrows can serve to control temperature as, they are 5–10 °C during the winter and 15–25 °C in the summer. Prairie dog tunnel systems help channel rainwater into the water table to prevent runoff and erosion, and can also serve to change the composition of the soil in a region by reversing soil compaction that can be a result of cattle grazing.
Prairie dog burrows are 5–10 m (16–33 ft) long and 2–3 m (6–10 ft) below the ground. The entrance holes are generally 10–30 cm (4–12 in) in diameter. Prairie dog burrows can have up to six entrances. Sometimes the entrances are simply flat holes in the ground, while at other times they are surrounded by mounds of soil either left as piles or packed down hard. Some mounds, known as dome craters, can be as high as 0.2–0.3 m (8–12 in) high. Other mounds, known as rim craters, can be as high as 1 m. Dome craters and rim craters serve as observation posts used by the animals to watch out for predators. They also function to protect the burrows from flooding. The holes also possibly provide ventilation as the air enters through the dome crater and leaves through the rim crater, causing a breeze though the burrow. Prairie dog burrows contain chambers to provide certain functions. They have nursery chambers for their young, chambers for night, and chambers for the winter. They also contain air chambers that may function to protect the burrow from flooding and a listening post for predators. When hiding from predators, prairie dogs use less-deep chambers that are usually a meter below the surface. Nursery chambers tend to be deeper, being two to three meters below the surface.