The five species of prairie dogs are North American rodents, but are actually members of the squirrel family. Their scientific name, cynomys, means ‘dog mouse’.
Prairie dogs live in large communities known as ‘towns’, which consist of 10 to 30 family groups known as ‘clans’. Prairie dog towns can cover hundreds of acres. They run a harem system, with one breeding male looking after several females. Lactating females frequently kill and eat the offspring of related females. What's more, the prairie dogs' 'Predator!' call – rather than sounding an alarm call designed to save other prairie dogs – are now thought to do the exact opposite. On hearing a call the immediate reaction of the other prairie dogs is to look around to see if they can see the source of the danger. This actually gives the predator a chance to swoop, giving the caller a distinct advantage.
Like their Asian relative, the marmot, prairie dogs are particularly susceptible to bubonic plague, but despite this they are still popular as exotic pets. Collectors literally hoover young pups out of their burrows using specially adapted sewage trucks.
Prairie dogs are endangered, and live in about 1-2% of their former habitat. Before 1900, colonies of prairie dogs were often huge. The largest one recorded covered 25,000 square miles, and was home to about 400 million prairie dogs.
The flesh, though often eaten by travelers, is not esteemed savory. It was denominated the 'barking squirrel,' the 'prairie ground-squirrel,' etc., by early explorers…
Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University has spent 30 years studying prairie dog behaviour. After he noticed changes in their characteristic ‘chee, chee’ alarm calls, he used a computer to untangle their constituent frequencies and overtones. He then tested these different patterns by collecting data in the field – recording the different alarm calls when different predators apppeared, scaring the prairie dogs with different geometric shapes, and even sending human volunteers into their colonies with different coloured shirts on.
The result was the first dictionary of Prairiedogese, in which the different calls could be decoded – first by computer but eventually by ear. Not only could the prairie dogs differentiate between hawks, coyotes, badgers and humans, they could also differentiate between short and tall humans and even what colour shirt they were wearing. (Interestingly, they couldn’t tell male from female). Not only is Professor Slobodichikoff’s work the first successful attempt to decode a rodent language, it is probably unique among mammals. Although we can analyse the apparent syntactical structure within the calls of whales, dolphins and gibbons – and can teach chimps and bonobos simple sign language – we can’t assign precise meanings to most of these utterances. As a result, the use of the term ‘language’ for such animal communication remains controversial.