Sunday, August 18, 2002
These social animals have an advanced system of communication.
Near Devils Tower National Monument lies a very small town full of constant entertainment and fascinating residents.
It's a town where residents greet one another with a kiss, but where it's necessary to be surrounded by guards.
A town where it's OK for a male to reside with three or four females and their offspring.
A town where strangers are not welcome to enter but can spend hours observing from the outskirts.
Welcome to Prairie Dog Town, where residents are cute and furry and stand about a foot tall.
About the towns
Black-tailed prairie dogs are one of the most social wild animals of North America, and they actually do kiss as a form of greeting.
And, they do live in densely populated areas referred to as towns. The towns are divided into wards, which are separated by hills, roads, streams or trees; the wards, in turn, are further divided into coteries.
A prairie dog town consists of acres of well-constructed burrows with funnel-shaped entrances about three to four inches in diameter.
Burrows all include dikes to prevent flooding, and there are side chambers for toilets, living space, storage, nesting and escape. Each burrow begins with about 15 to 16 feet of slanting tunnel that levels off for another 20 to 50 feet.
Watching prairie dogs can be as relaxing as watching fish, but it's much more entertaining and even comical. The small animals, members of the squirrel family, have buff-colored fur, large eyes, tiny ears and look a bit like a really big chipmunk.
Like in any town, everyone has a job to do. Some are gatherers, some dig burrows and others clear debris and vegetation away from burrow entrances.
And, of course, there are the police.
These sentinels sit perched on their hindquarters around the perimeter of town watching for approaching danger and predators like hawks, coyotes, eagles, rattlesnakes or foxes. They're especially wary of the most dangerous animal of all, humans.
When danger is perceived, these sentinels begin a warning bark that consists of a short, high-pitched sound repeated over and over until the danger passes.
Recent studies suggest that prairie dogs have the most sophisticated natural animal language ever found, with different sounds to identify individual predators. Approximately 11 different barks and their supposed meaning have been identified. The warning bark is usually accompanied by a flick of the tail as the prairie dog bounces up and down in alarm.
As the warning is heard across town, all residents are on full alert and scurry for burrows to wait and pass along the warning call. All over town, heads pop in and out of the burrow holes sounding the alarm while remaining safely halfway in their burrows' "listening post" (the chamber closest to the top).
Prairie dogs have eyes that are positioned to the side of their heads to make it easier to detect approaching predators.
Once a perceived danger has passed, the sentinels pass along an "all-is-well" signal to let the others know they're safe. In this signal, the prairie dog throws its forefeet upward as it stands on its hind legs, points its nose straight up and then comes back down on all fours. The others pass along this signal throughout the town creating an effect similar to the "wave" done by fans at a football game. This is repeated until all residents have gotten the message.
With plenty of tourists observing their busy little town, the prairie dogs get plenty of practice for their early warning system.
In turn, the presence of tourists scares away any real potential predators. When visitors are quiet and respectful of the town's boundaries, the prairie dogs can be observed bustling about their friendly little town, going off to work, kissing their friends hello and letting the little ones romp about and play.
All in all, a very nice town to visit.