Western North America from Canada to Mexico


Prairies and plateaus

Prairie home companion

When is a dog not a dog? When it's a large ground squirrel found on the prairie! Prairie dogs are very social rodents that live in huge underground burrows, called towns, in the prairies and plateaus of North America. Undisturbed towns have tens of thousands of prairie dog residents and go for miles in every direction.

Each town consists of subgroups, or wards, and wards are in turn split into family groups called coteries. Each coterie defends a home territory of about 1 acre (0.4 hectare) from surrounding coteries. The typical coterie territory has 70 separate burrow entrances.

Underground town

Prairie dog towns can easily be found by the pile of dirt outside each burrow entrance. The mounds provide protection from the weather and give the little prairie dogs some extra height when watching for predators. Underground, the tunnels contain separate chambers for sleeping, rearing young, and eliminating waste.

Settlers called prairie dogs "dogs" because of their high-pitched, bark-like call.
Abandoned prairie dog burrows are often used as homes by burrowing owls, rabbits, badgers, weasels, snakes, black-footed ferrets, salamanders, insects, and even foxes.
One prairie dog town discovered in Texas in 1900 was the size of the state of Maryland and was thought to contain some 400 million prairie dogs in its tunnels.

The San Diego Zoo has two black-tailed prairie dog brothers that serve as animal ambassadors. They meet guests up close and visit schools and television studios.

At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, black-tailed prairie dogs can be seen in the Condor Ridge habitat.

At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated five billion prairie dogs lived on millions of acres of grass prairies across western North America. Since then, the prairie dog population has dropped by 98 percent. The Mexican prairie dog Cynomys mexicanus is endangered, and the Utah prairie dog Cynomys parvidens was saved from extinction by the Endangered Species Act.

Unfortunately, ranchers have long viewed prairie dogs as pests that compete with their livestock for food. Because they eat as much as seven percent of a ranch's forage, prairie dog elimination programs have been under way for decades in the American West. Now, a growing number of experts argue that prairie dogs may, in fact, be helpful to ranchers and others. The prairie dog is an important part of the prairie ecosystem. Prairie dogs' churning activities aerate the soil to allow for more water penetration, while their nitrogen-rich dung improves the quality of the soil and vegetation. The prairie dog also supports a wide variety of species in another way: foxes, coyotes, weasels, snakes, hawks, eagles, and the endangered black-footed ferret are some of the many predators that rely on prairie dogs for food.

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.