Living underground? Let’s see how the prairie dogs do that.

Every time I walked out of the zoo kitchen, the first animals I saw were the prairie dogs. Always working, always looking for food or watching over their domain (like night club guards).

I always wondered how their underground city looks like. I know theoretically how the structure of this city is (different chambers connected through long halls). But this chamber structure is different in every group and it can change almost every day. It changes when the group grows, in the summer and in the winter.

What is a prairie dog?

The prairie dogs belong to the squirrel family and some people call them ground squirrels. There are 5 different prairie dog species.

In our zoo they have a group of nine black tailed prairie dogs. As the name indicates, they have a black tail. They also have small ears and very long nails, perfect for digging.

They have a brown fur and sharp front teeth, which, like with all rodents, grow constantly. This means that they need to gnaw on hard food or wood to wear their teeth down.

baby prairie dog

What do they eat?

Our prairie dogs eat vegetables and fruit. We normally give them hard vegetables and fruit, like apple, sweet potato, carrot, pear and broccoli. Of course they also like banana, grapes, water melon and leafy vegetables. Besides their normal diet we give them enrichment as we do with all the animals in the zoo.

In the beginning it was a bit difficult to come up with the right enrichment for them, because we had little experience with rodents. Finally we found some nice ones that keep them busy: vegetables hanging from a branch (they have to get on their back paws to reach the food), a tunnel where we can hide the food inside or providing them tree bark to wear their teeth down.

It is also a good idea to leave grass or hay inside their enclosure, so they can use it to keep their nests warm.

prairie dogs eating

How do they live?

Prairie dogs live in a complex underground burrow with different chambers. They have nurseries, sleeping chambers, toilets, etc. This tunnel system is designed to let the air flow through, that is one of the reasons why in summer and winter the structure of the tunnels and chambers can be changed. In summer they need more ventilation to keep it cool and in the winter it is the opposite, they need to keep it warm.

Prairie dogs are very social animals. They have a similar social structure as humans. They live in groups with normally one adult male. Different groups live together forming a “village”.

One of their cute behaviours is “kissing”. It looks like prairie dogs great each other with a kiss, but actually they are checking out if they belong to the same family group. They touch each other’s noses and hook their teeth together.

They have a very well organised system to watch out for predators. There are always one or two group members that keep watch, standing on their back paws and observing the horizon for possible danger.

When there is danger, they warn their group with a short bark. Some of the sounds they make remind us of dog barks and that is how they got their name.

Prairie dogs have a wide repertoire of vocalizations.

prairie dog sleeping

VIP animals

Prairie dogs are keystone animals. Entire ecosystems rely on these small mammals.

A keystone species is an animal (or plant) that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions. Without this species the ecosystem would be completely different or would not exist.

Prairie dogs are the primary diet for different animals and other animals rely on their burrows for nesting.

It is important to know that this small animal benefits up to 150 other species.

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