Creature Feature: Prairie Dogs

In this Creature Feature, Animal Keeper and Area Manager, Jess Phillips answered questions about prairie dogs. These small and active critters can be seen at the Zoo in their exhibit in Schaefer Plaza, near the main gate.  You’ll also notice some new additions popping up out of the burrows.  Be on the lookout for prairie dog pups now starting to emerge for the first time this season! 


1) Where do Prairie dogs originate, and where are they most likely to be found in the wild?

  • Our species, Black tailed prairie dogs originate in the grasslands and prairies of North America as far north as the Canadian border and south to Mexico. Their habitat is dwindling and they are becoming endangered due to development, but can still be found in open grasslands of the middle and Western United states.

 2) How many Prairie dogs do we have here at the Zoo?

  • It’s difficult to know for sure as they spend so much time underground, and don’t all tend to be out at the same time. This year, the highest count so far has been 47, however we expect to see pups in the very near future, which will increase their visible numbers. Last year we counted 26 pups.


  3) Why do the Prairie dogs make a “barking” noise?

  • Their “bark” is an anti predator call made by animals that are standing watch at burrow entrances looking for either ground predators, or birds of prey. They have several different types of calls or warnings and their physical behavior can be different depending on the type of threat to the colony.

4) Is there like a “matriarch” of the Prairie dogs? Like a social ladder?

  • There is no Matriarch, however Prairie dogs are extremely social and keep together in very close family groups that usually contain 1 male, 3-4 females, and 6-8 pups. The females stay in the same family groups for life.  A typical Prairie dog “town,” or colony, will have up to 30 family groups residing within it. These towns can be as big as 1-5 acres in size. Males will be very territorial and will protect their burrows ferociously from other males. This is why sometimes visitors will report seeing an injured animal.

 5) What do they eat and are there any special treats that they enjoy?

  • In the wild Prairie dogs live on grasses and any other plant life they can find. Our colony eats a combination of hay, ADF pellets, greens such as kale, and some fruit. They enjoy flavored ice treats in the summer time, and any fruits high in sugar.

 6) If you could name one very unusual behavior, and something that no one would know, what would that be?

  • Sometimes you will see prairie dogs communicating each other through “hugging” and “kissing” each other. This is a method of communication that only occurs between immediate family members. You will also see them stretching out and laying in the sun while grooming each other.

Prairie Dogs 2