Unless you live somewhere that they call home, we tend to think about prairie dogs only when we see westerns or nature documentaries. They’re known to populate the grasslands across the central and western United States with underground colonies referred to as prairie dog towns.
But tunneling isn’t all they’re known for. Here are 6 facts about prairie dogs you can whip out on your friends (they may not be your friends for long) or use the next time you’re playing trivia games. Who knows, you might even be able to answer Jeopardy questions with your newfound knowledge.
1. Mating Season
The mating season for prairie dogs lasts all of one hour. Yup, it’s snooze you lose for unlucky members of the community that come late to the party. These goofy little creatures mate just once a year in early winter. That’s it. Furthermore, the reason the “season” is so short is because female prairie dogs go into estrus for only an hour. They have litters of three to eight pups, of which only half survive their first year.
2. Prairie Dog Vocabulary
To date, their vocabulary is advanced beyond any animal language that’s ever been decoded. Recent research found that their calls can convey incredibly detailed descriptions. They regularly alert one another to the goings-on on a level comparable to humans.
3. The Black Plague
Interestingly, they are threatened by the same plague that caused the Black Death in Europe.
The bubonic plague made its way to North America via rats aboard European ships in the late 1800s, and it soon spread throughout wildlife populations. The hardest hit were black-tailed prairie dogs. The disease is still a threat in the northern Great Plains and tends to eradicate entire colonies when it strikes.
Speaking of colonies or communities, families are referred to as coteries, and the average coterie tends to have one or two males, several females, and new pups. Males are said to hop from one coterie to another while females stay true for life.
5. Squirrel Cousins
It probably doesn’t surprise many, but prairie dogs are actually cousins with squirrels. Yup, all five species of prairie dogs belong to the Scuiridae (squirrel) family. Their other closest relations are marmots, chipmunks, groundhogs, and woodchucks.
6. Territorial Range
Unfortunately for them, the historical range for prairie dogs has shrunk by more than 95 percent over the decades. At one time, there were hundreds of millions of them living in North America. Over time, however, their range has dissipated to less than 5 percent of its former size due to diminishing habitats and steady encroachment by humans.