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NATURAL HISTORY

BLACK-TAILED PRAIRIE DOG } Cynomys ludovicianus
FAMILY: Sciuridae

DESCRIPTION: The black-tailed prairie dog is a daytime-active, medium-sized rodent, ranging in length from 12 to 15 inches, including a three- to four-inch tail. Its weight ranges from 1.5 to three pounds. It is typically a tan color, with a lighter underbelly and black-tipped tail.

HABITAT: Like most prairie dogs, the black-tailed prefers short-grass prairie habitats and avoids any environments with reduced visibility, including heavy brush and tall grass areas.

RANGE: The black-tailed prairie dog is found in isolated populations from Central Texas to just north of the Canadian border.

MIGRATION: Black-tailed prairie dogs live in large social colonies and do not migrate. Males will disperse from their home family groups upon sexual maturation but typically stay within the same larger group or emigrate to another nearby colony. Very infrequently, males will attempt to establish a completely new colony.

BREEDING: Breeding habits are reflected in the prairie dog’s social structure. A single male typically mates with multiple females in his home family group. Competition for mates is minimal and communal nursing is common for young that have emerged from the burrow. Gestation takes around 35 days, and litters range in size from one to eight pups, though three is average. Mating takes place only once a year, with timing closely related to latitude. Most groups breed in late winter and early spring.

LIFE CYCLE: A wild prairie dog’s average life span is around three to five years.

FEEDING: Omnivores by nature, black-tailed prairie dogs prefer to eat short grasses, low-growing weeds, and flowering plants. They will occasionally eat insects but obtain the majority of their nutritional needs, including water consumption, from vegetation.

THREATS: Black-tailed prairie dogs face myriad threats — most of them human caused. Often regarded by ranchers and farmers as pests, populations have been intentionally reduced by poisoning and shooting. Habitat destruction in the name of development and exotic diseases has played a critical role in reducing populations to their current levels. Prairie dogs are also threatened by disease.

POPULATION TREND: Once one of the most abundant North American mammals, black-tailed prairie dogs were historically found in suitable habitats across the continent. Individual colonies may have numbered in the hundreds of millions, with one colony reported to have contained roughly 400 million individuals. Due to intentional eradication and habitat destruction, colonies are now much smaller and found in only isolated patches of still-viable habitat. Recent estimates place the total population at around 10 to 20 million individuals, a roughly 95 percent reduction compared to historic numbers.

Black-tailed prairie dog photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth, USFWS