Everything about these little creatures points to the careful design of a wise Creator. Though often seen as a nuisance, these small furry critters actually serve many useful purposes, and the benefits their habits provide are often greatly missed much after it’s too late to get them back. Relatives of the ground squirrel (see previous post), the Prairie Dog was once a symbol of the western plain, almost as much as the Buffalo (see previous post for this as well). However, as habitat disappears, and as they are exterminated as a pest, prairie dogs are now a much rarer sight than they used to be.
Prairie dogs are called “dogs” because of the “barking” nature of their call. They are closely related to the ground squirrel, however, and are not in the least bit related to canines. These very social animals live in colonies called “coteries” or “clans,” depending on the type of prairie dog – with coteries tending to be a more closely-knit social structure and clans tending to be more . . . well, clan-ish! These little animals live in extensive burrows, and the making and maintenance of these burrows falls to the males, while raising the young is the job of the females. The burrows provide protection from predators, weather, temperature extremes, and natural disasters. While many farmers and ranchers consider these burrows to be a great nuisance, they actually serve the very important purpose of channeling rainwater more directly to the water table, rather than allowing it to run off – causing erosion and compacting the soil. Prairie dog tunnels also keep the ground healthy by loosening up soil that has been compacted by cattle, and allowing nutrients into the ground that keep grass healthy for grazing. So, while the prairie dog tunnels have been hated for years, it is slowly being realized that they play an important part in the ecosystem.
So, how extensive are these burrows, and how intricately can they be, dug as they are by a “dumb” rodent? The tunnels can be over 30 feet long, and up to 10 feet below the ground. Rooms are created with different purposes, much like a house would have. For instance, there is often a “nursery” room, bedrooms for night-time sleeping, winter chambers, and even air chambers serving as “basements” for flood protection. One of the distinctive signs of a prairie dog village is that of mounds of dirt surrounding the burrow entrances. These mounds aren’t simply there for decoration or a place to pile excess dirt! They serve several purposes. There are two types of mounds, depending on the height of the mound. Shorter “dome craters” are up to a foot in height, while “rim craters” can be several feet high. They serve as lookout posts to watch for predators, as well as aiding in flood prevention. They also serve to help ventilate the burrow, as the airflow enters from the shorter dome crater and leaves through the higher rim craters, much like a chimney channels air from a furnace. This pulls a breeze through the tunnels, keeping the temperatures cool and comfortable during the hot summer months.
Prairie dogs are herbivores, subsisting on grasses and grass roots. On rare occasions they will eat grasshoppers or other insects, but for the most part they are exclusive vegetarians. Their tunnels, root trimming, and management of the grasses leave a healthy grassland environment. Often, bison and cattle favor areas habited by prairie dogs due to the health of the grass. Where prairie dogs disappear, scrub brush and bushes soon take over, and the grassland often disappears quickly. These little animals play a very important role in their ecosystem – both as caretakers, and as a major food source for a wide variety of predator animals.
As a social animal, prairie dogs have a highly developed “vocabulary” of communication. Their barks and chirps mean a wide variety of things, depending on pitch, intonation, and frequency – much like our own vocabularies. The alarm calls have been studied closely, and it has been determined that there are different calls for different types of threats. For instance, a domestic dog may only get a mild alarm, while a coyote gets a more urgent one. Often, after the call for a hawk is given, only the prairie dogs in the hawk’s flight path will go for cover while the others simply watch, indicating a clear understanding of the call vocabulary. Like wolves, loons, and a variety of other animals, it seems that God designed the prairie dog with an extensive communication system, enabling them to communicate the joys, sorrows, fears, warnings, and other facets of life.
The prairie dog is considered a “keystone” species due to the importance of the role it plays in its environment. The widespread extermination of these relatively harmless animals is disturbing, when considering the effect that it will have on the environment. God gave the prairie dog a job to do, and it is very important that it does it! By the way, horses breaking their legs in prairie dog holes are merely a myth. Horses, like most animals, are not given much credit for brains – much to our error and discredit. Yes, God created a balanced world, where species all play their important roles and have their own jobs to do. What a wise Creator to design such a small but important animal! If you ever get a chance to drive past a prairie dog village, stop for a few minutes and watch these fun animals play, fight, survive, and do many of the same things we do! Pause and reflect on the greatness of a God who thoughtfully created each creature with a purpose – even the lowly prairie dog.