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 social rodents that live in huge, underground burrows, called towns. They make these 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. Whew!

Underground town

A pile of dirt outside each burrow entrance indicates a prairie dog town. The dirt piles provide protection from the weather. They also 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.
A prairie dog town discovered in Texas in 1900 was the size of the state of Maryland. It was thought to contain some 400 million prairie dogs in its tunnels.

For many years, starting in the 1920s, the San Diego Zoo had its own Prairie Dog Town exhibit. It was a large pit with a concrete bottom and walls, filled with dirt for the “dogs” to create their many burrows. The Town’s population ebbed and flowed over the years, often housing 50 or more prairie dogs, although it was hard to count them all! Other burrowing animals became “citizens” from time to time, including an armadillo named Annie.

Today, both the Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park each have a black-tailed prairie dog serving as an animal ambassador. They meet guests up close and visit schools and television studios.

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. The Utah prairie dog Cynomys parvidens was saved from extinction by the Endangered Species Act but is still considered an endangered species.

Ranchers have long viewed prairie dogs as pests that compete with their livestock for food. Because the little rodents can eat as much as seven percent of a ranch's forage, prairie dog elimination programs started decades ago in the American West. Now, a growing number of experts argue that prairie dogs may, in fact, be helpful to ranchers and others. Prairie dogs are an important part of the prairie ecosystem. Their churning activities aerate the soil to allow for more water penetration. Their nitrogen-rich dung improves the quality of the soil and vegetation. Prairie dogs also support a wide variety of species in another way: many predators rely on them 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.