Prairie Dogs Are Ecosystem Engineers


Ecologists Dig Prairie Dogs, And You Should Too

by Andy Boyce and Andrew Dreelin/Smithsonian Zoo

Varmint, gopher, keystone species, ecosystem engineer. What prairie dogs are to you depends on your point of view. Although many people view prairie dogs as pests, ecologists absolutely dig them. At our field site in north-central Montana, we’re learning more about how black-tailed prairie dogs change the landscape and support the many species that call the prairie home.

Prairie dogs are not big and charismatic like bison, grizzly bears or pandas, but they are just as important and perhaps even more controversial. The cause for their controversy is the same reason that they are so important: these burrowing rodents make a unique and significant impact on the prairie landscape.

Prairie dogs live in huge colonies composed of countless small family groups, called coteries. They are prolific diggers, constructing complex burrow systems with specific areas for sleeping, nursing young, storing food and even disposing of their dead. A single colony’s burrow system can cover thousands of acres, with an average of about 20 prairie dogs per acre in the summer after the young emerge. That’s why these burrow systems are sometimes called prairie dog towns.

And they house more than just prairie dogs……Read More:


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