Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Kylie. Kylie Wonders, “Are prairie dogs considered dogs?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Kylie!
What dogs live underground and aren't really dogs at all? Prairie dogs, that's who! Wonderopolis is heading west to learn more about these small creatures that call the grasslands home.
Prairie dogs are rodents who live underground in burrows in the open grasslands and prairies of western North America. About the size of rabbits, prairie dogs aren't related to dogs at all. In fact, they're most closely related to squirrels.
Why call them dogs then? Early western explorers thought their alarm call — the sound they make to warn each other about intruders — sounded like a dog's bark, so they called them prairie dogs. Lewis and Clark noted in their journals that the French called them prairie dogs, although Lewis would later refer to them as “barking squirrels" in his notes.
There are five different species of prairie dogs: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison's, Utah, and Mexican. The first four species live mainly in western states, such as Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Mexican prairie dogs live in…surprise!...Mexico.
Prairie dogs eat mainly grasses and other plants, although they've also been known to eat insects and fruit when they can find them. They forage for food most of the day and then head underground to sleep in burrows at night.
Prairie dogs tend to be creatures that live in large colonies that are commonly known as prairie dog towns. Prairie dog towns can contain thousands of prairie dogs and cover several square miles. The largest prairie dog town ever measured covered over 25,000 square miles and was home to over 400 million prairie dogs.
Within a prairie dog town, prairie dogs live in smaller family groups called coteries. A single coterie can contain more than 25 prairie dogs living on an acre of land with as many as 70 burrow entrances.
Prairie dogs have many natural enemies, including coyotes, bobcats, badgers, eagles, and falcons. They must stay on the lookout for these predators at all times. When a prairie dog spots a predator, it will warn others with a loud alarm call that sounds like a dog's bark.
The prairie dog's worst enemy, however, is probably man. Over 100 years ago, there were over five billion prairie dogs in North America. Since that time, the prairie dog population has decreased by about 98%. Farmers and ranchers have systematically rid their lands of prairie dogs, which they see as pests that compete with livestock for food.