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Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) Fact Sheet: Summary

Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) Fact Sheet

black-tailed prairie dog

Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

 

Taxonomy

Physical Characteristics

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Rodentia — rodents

Family: Sciuridae — prairie dogs, squirrels, chipmunks, marmots

Genus: Cynomys

Species: Cynomys ludovicianus (Ord, 1815) — black-tailed prairie dog, Arizona black-tailed prairie dog

Sources: Cassola (2016), Koprowski et al. (2016)

 

Synonyms

Arctomys ludoviciana, Cynomys ludocicianus arizonensis, Cynomys socialis (see complete listings in Hall 1981; Hoogland 1996, Cassola 2016, Koprowski et al. 2016)

Weight

Average, males: 905 g (31.9 oz) (Koprowski et al. 2016)
Average, females: 819 g (28.9 oz) (Koprowski et al. 2016)
Range: 700–1645 g (25–58 oz)* (Hoogland and Foltz 1982)
*Anthony and Foreman (1951) report a lower minimum weight of 550 g (19 oz) for adults.

Body Length

Average: 374 mm (14.7 in) (Koprowski et al. 2016)
Range: 355–415 mm (14.0–16.3 in) (Hall 1981)

Tail Length

Average, males: 87 mm (3.4 in) (Koprowski et al. 2016)
Average, females: 84 mm (3.3 in) (Koprowski et al. 2016)
Range: 71–115 mm (2.8–4.52 in) (Hall 1981; Hoogland 1996)

General Appearance

Stout body with short tail and broad head (Hoogland 1996).

Coloration

Upperbody buff to brown to cinnamon. Face can be paler. Underbody pale buff to white. Tail tip dark brown to black (Hall 1981; Koprowski et al. 2016). Whiskers and nails black (Hoogland 1996).

Distribution & Status

Behavior & Ecology

Range

Native to North America: Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Primarily found in the Great Plains. Distribution extends from southern Canada and Montana, south to northeastern Sonora and northern Chihuahua in Mexico (Koford 1958; Trefry and Holroyd 2012; Cassola 2016).

Isolated populations within historic range. Locally extirpated from southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and other local areas throughout its range (Hoogland 1996).

Habitat

Open grasslands with low, relatively sparse vegetation (Koford 1958; Cassola 2016; Koprowski et al. 2016). Prefer compact, finer-grained soils but dig burrows in many kinds of soil. Sandy areas not preferred but sometimes occupied for colony expansion (Osborn 1942; Koford 1958; Cassola 2016).

Often select habitat areas with past livestock, bison (Bison bison), and human disturbance (e.g., edges of urban areas, airport fields) (e.g., Osborn 1942; Knowles 1986; Licht and Sanchez 1993; Avila-Flores et al. 2010). Burrowing and grazing activities create genetically and morphologically distinct plant community patches (differing plant height, composition) in grassland landscapes (Whicker and Detling 1988).

About 40% of historic habitat converted for agriculture (Cassola 2016).

IUCN Status

Least Concern (2016 assessment) (Cassola 2016)

CITES Appendix

Not listed (UNEP 2021)

Other Designations

Not listed as a U.S. endangered or threatened species (USFWS 2021).

Populations in the Wild

Most abundant of North America’s 5 prairie dog species (Miller and Cully, Jr. 2001).

Approximately 18 million (range: 2.6 to 33 million) individuals in the United States (estimate from the early 2000s) (USFWS 2004; Cassola 2016).

Estimated that populations have been reduced to 2% of historic abundance (based on range occupancy) (Summers and Linder 1978; Whicker and Detling 1988; Miller et al. 1994).

Threats to Survival

Diseases, such as sylvatic (bubonic) plague (Reading et al. 1989; USFWS 2004; Eads and Biggins 2015; Roth 2019; Russell et al. 2019). Habitat loss and fragmentation due to agriculture and urbanization (Cheatheam 1977; Cassola 2016).

Population control programs via poisoning and shooting (Koford 1958; Bruns Stockrahm and Seabloom 1988; Roemer and Forrest 1996; Vosburgh and Irby 1998; USFWS 2004).

Climate change, drought, and harsh winters (e.g., King 1955; Facka et al. 2010; Avila-Flores et al. 2012; Grassel et al. 2016; Stephens et al. 2018).

Activity Patterns

Diurnal, though active at night when escaping predators. Forage for much of the day. Sit upright on haunches, sometimes on burrow mounds, to scan for predators and monitor nearby prairie dogs. Sleep in burrows at night (King 1955; Hoogland 1995; Eads et al. 2010b; Koprowski et al. 2016).

Active throughout the year, except when in torpor during winter periods of prolonged cold (especially if minimal spring to summer precipitation) (Anthony and Foreman 1951; King 1955; Hoogland 1996; Lehmer et al. 2001; Koprowski et al. 2016).

Social Behavior

Highly social. Live in multi-burrow colonies (towns) (e.g., Bailey 1905; King 1955; Koford 1958; Hoogland 1995). Colonies vary in size and density, and consist of territorial family groups (coteries); typically 2–26 individuals. A family group commonly consists of 1 adult male, 2–3 adult females, and 1–2 yearlings; some larger family groups have 2 adult males. Females in a family group are usually relatives (King 1955; Hoogland 1982; Hoogland and Foltz 1982; Hoogland 1995; Manno et al. 2007; Koprowski et al. 2016).

Aggressive to individuals not part of the family group, as well as new neighbor groups (King 1955; Hoogland 1995; Manno et al. 2007; Koprowski et al. 2016). Also see Breeding and Parental Care.

Historically, large colonies extended for miles and included thousands of individuals (Bailey 1905).

Communication

Large vocal repertoire with 12 known sounds —territorial “jump-yips” and alarm calls are most common. “Jump-yip” given while standing on hindfeet and throwing front legs and head upward. Loud, repeating alarm calls given in response to raptors, snakes, and large mammals (King 1955; Koford 1958; Hoogland 1983; Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996; Koprowski et al. 2016; Wilson-Henjum et al. 2019). “Jump-yip” also given in response to snakes and American badgers. Males give mating call (Grady and Hoogland 1986).

Family group behavior includes grooming, play, and mouth-to-mouth contact (aids recognition of individuals in the group) (King 1955; Koford 1958; Hoogland 1996).

Stare, charge, chase, wrestle, flare tail hairs, chatter teeth, and give high-pitched whistle during territorial disputes (King 1955; Koford 1958; Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996). Mutual smelling also occurs during disputes (King 1955).

Movements

Territorial boundaries relatively stable over time. Many females live in natal coterie their entire lives, but disperse to new coteries when all close kin have disappeared. Males disperse from natal area during their first year. Adult males also commonly disperse for breeding (Hoogland 1982; Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996; Hoogland 2013). Movements between coteries is sometimes common (e.g., King 1955), but migration between colonies is rare due to high predation risk and aggression towards non-colony members (Koford 1958; Garrett and Franklin 1988; Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996).

Diet and Feeding

Young grasses (e.g., buffalo grass, grama, wheatgrass), forb shoots, bulbs, cacti, woody shrubs, and other grassland plants. Diet changes seasonally in many regions (Kelso 1939; King 1955; Koford 1958; Summers and Linder 1978; Hoogland 1996; Koprowski et al. 2016).

Predators

All ages: American badgers (Koford 1958; Eads and Biggins 2008; Eads et al. 2012), bobcats and coyotes (King 1955; Koford 1958; Licht 2010), long-tailed weasels (Hoogland 1995), black-footed ferrets (Eads et al. 2010a), bullsnakes and rattlesnakes, several species of raptors (Koford 1958; Hoogland 1996), and humans (Hoogland 1995). Occasionally red foxes, gray foxes, grizzly bears, and mountain lions.

Young and juveniles: other prairie dogs (infanticide) (Anthony and Foreman 1951; Hoogland 1985; Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996)

Locomotion

“Waddling gait” (Koford 1958)

Relationship with Humans

Perceived by some ranchers to compete with livestock for forage (Roemer and Forrest 1996; Miller and Cully, Jr. 2001; Koprowski et al. 2016). Long history as a “pest species” (Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996).

In the 1900s, widely shot and poisoned in efforts to eradicate prairie dogs from ranchlands. Also occasionally hunted for food (Koprowski et al. 2016).

A keystone species (e.g., Miller et al. 1994) and ecosystem engineer (e.g., Whicker and Detling 1988). May promote livestock production by limiting woody plant growth in grasslands through grazing (Ponce-Guevara et al. 2016; Hale et al. 2020) and improve soil quality through burrowing (Koprowski et al. 2016).

Sport hunting and poisoning continues in some areas (Cassola 2016; Koprowski et al. 2016).

Reproduction & Development

Additional Species Highlights

Breeding and Parental Care

Harem-polygamous mating system (Hoogland and Foltz 1982). Single breeding season lasts 2 to 3 weeks per year; individual females in estrus only 1 day (Anthony and Foreman 1951; Hoogland 1996; Koprowski et al. 2016). Southern populations generally thought to breed earlier than northern populations (Hoogland 1996).

Mating occurs in underground burrows (Hoogland 1982; Hoogland and Foltz 1982; Hoogland 1995). Young born in nursery burrows packed with dry grass (King 1955; Hoogland 1995; Cassola 2016). Emerge at 38 to 50 days of age; weaned at this time (King 1955; Koford 1958; Hoogland 1985). Pregnant and lactating females vigorously defend young and nursery burrows (King 1955; Koford 1958; Hoogland 1983; Hoogland 1986; Hoogland 1996).

Sexual Maturity

About 2 years old. A small number of individuals breed their first year (King 1955; Bruns Stockrahm and Seabloom 1988; Hoogland 1995; USFWS 2004; Koprowski et al. 2016).

Gestation

Approximately 35 days (Anthony and Foreman 1951; Hoogland 1985; Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996; Koprowski et al. 2016)

Litter Size

About 3–4 (range: 1–6) young at first juvenile emergence (Hoogland and Foltz 1982; Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996; Cassola 2016; Koprowski et al. 2016). Reports of larger litter sizes of up to 8–10 young (Anthony and Foreman 1951; Koford 1958) likely reflect counts of litters pre-emergence (Hoogland 1995).

Lifetime reproductive success

About 4 young reach juvenile age per breeding female; about 7 young per breeding male (Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996).

Interbirth Interval

1 litter per year (Cassola 2016)

Birth Weight

About 15 g (0.53 oz) (Johnson 1927; Anthony and Foreman 1951; Hoogland 1996)

Longevity

In the wild: typically 3–4 years (USFWS 2004). Males may live to 5 years; exceptional females to 8 years (Hoogland 1995; Hoogland 1996).
In managed care: typically 6–8 years, up to about 10–11 years, maximum (Young 1944; ZIMS 2021)

Feature Facts

  • In taller-grass prairies, prune grass around burrows to maintain line of sight for predator detection (Osborn 1942; Koford 1958; Cassola 2016; Koprowski et al. 2016; Connell et al. 2018; Hale et al. 2020).
  • Cooperate to deter small-bodied predators, such as long-tailed weasels (Hoogland 1995) and black-footed ferrets (Livieri 2013)
  • A family group’s territory typically has approximately 70 burrows (Hoogland 1996).
  • Prairie dogs provide a range of ecosystem services, including ability of water to penetrate the ground, reduction of soil erosion, and more forage available to cattle (Martínez-Estévez et al. 2013).
  • Extensive ongoing human intervention to prevent spread of sylvatic (bubonic) plague, which can eliminate local populations quickly (Koprowski et al. 2016).

About This Fact Sheet

For bibliography, click the tab at the top of this page.

 

© 2021 San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

 

How to cite: Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) Fact Sheet. c2021. San Diego (CA): San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance; [accessed YYYY Mmm dd]. http://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/black-tailed-prairie-dog.
(note: replace YYYY Mmm dd with date accessed, e.g., 2019 Dec 31)

 

Disclaimer: Although San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance makes every attempt to provide accurate information, some of the facts provided may become outdated or replaced by new research findings. Questions and comments may be addressed to library@sdzwa.org.

Acknowledgments

The information in this fact sheet was reviewed by a Ph.D.-credentialed wildlife ecologist who has studied prairie dogs in the Great Plains since 2006. The SDZWA Library is awaiting federal agency approval to post the reviewer's acknowledgment.

Prairie Dog Distribution

Distribution of black-tailed prairie dog

The black-tailed prairie dog ranges from southern Canada to northern Mexico, with most populations located in the U.S. Great Plains.

Adapted from www.d-maps.com according to IUCN fact sheet. Click here or on map for detailed distribution (IUCN).

Always Observant

Prairie dog stands alert in log opening

Prairie dogs are well known for their vigilance behavior.

They often sit upright on their haunches, on or near their burrow mounds, to scan for predators and monitor nearby prairie dogs.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Up Close and Familial

Two black-tailed prairie dogs nose to nose

Mouth-to-mouth contact between prairie dogs helps family members recognize each other.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are highly social and live in multi-burrow colonies. They are territorial and show aggression to individuals outside their family group.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Ecosystem Engineer

black-tailed prairie dog sitting upright with food

In taller-grass prairies, black-tailed prairie dogs prune vegetration around their burrows, which makes it easier to spot predators.

Their grazing and burrowing activity shapes plant communities in grassland areas, helps rainwater penetrate the ground, reduces soil erosion, and opens up foraging areas for cattle.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Downside to Colony Life

black-tailed prairie dog

Because black-tailed prairie dogs live in large colonies, they are vulnerable to certain infectious diseases, such as sylvatic (bubonic) plague. This bacterial disease, which spreads by flea bites, can kill local populations quickly.

Conservation biologists monitor infection levels and treat wild prairie dog populations to prevent plague outbreaks.

The sylvatic plague bacterium spread to North America around 1900, when steamships from Asia carried flea-infested rats to the U.S. Pacific coast.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

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