The Bad Boys of the Prairie
They may be small, but they don’t ever back down
The Wild West of America: The land of bison, rattlesnakes, and coyotes— or so one might think. The reality is somewhat different: In the midst of the biggest and brawniest beasts lives a tiny rodent that won’t hesitate to show all comers who really calls the shots here…
The anger is clearly visible in its eyes. At a speed of over 35 miles per hour, a 2,000-pound bison charges. Its hooves make the ground tremble. It’s high time for all of the prairie dwellers to take cover. All of them, that is, except one: Just one animal has the courage—or should we say, the audacity—to stand up to this behemoth of a beast and hold its ground. It’s an act that seems doomed to fail. But suddenly, just a few yards in front of our feisty rebel, the mighty bison slows down to a halt. For a few seconds, the two stand face to face—until the bull turns away with a snort and retreats. And here is the hothead who dared to defy this beast: a little prairie dog, standing at only 1 foot tall and weighing just 2 pounds. Prairie dogs might seem small and unassuming, but they compensate for that with a prominent ego, a high potential for aggression, and a very big mouth. The bad boys bark at anything that gets too close to their hood—be it a bison, human, or toxic snake.
This is precisely the kind of behavior that scientists Patrick Mcmillan of Clemson University and Travis Livieri from Prairie Wildlife Research have observed firsthand. “Way out in the middle of a wide grassy plain, I spotted a black-footed ferret—the archenemy of the prairie dog. These ferrets are among the best hunters in the region and purely from a position of strength, they could slay a prairie dog with no problem,” says Livieri. “Suddenly this prairie dog runs up out of nowhere and jumps at the intruder again and again from all sides while barking like crazy until the ferret was eventually driven out from the prairie dog’s territory. But that just wasn’t enough: When the bewildered ferret attempted to flee into a burrow, the prairie dog stayed in front of the entrance to the tunnel and imitated the sound of a rattlesnake—while at the same time filling the hole up with earth.”
When it comes to the laws of nature, animal roles are usually well defined: Ferrets, snakes, and creatures of their ilk are the predators, and prairie dogs are the prey. But Cynomys ludovicianus simply barks at the rules. “Prairie dogs can easily turn the tables,” says Mcmillan. “It’s about the same as a gazelle chasing a cheetah.”
The black-tailed prairie dog has played the role of the bad boy quite well: About 20 million of them currently dominate the vast stretches of grassland that extend from northern Mexico all the way to southern Canada. The largest prairie dog “town,” as these interconnected colonies are called, covers about 135 square miles and
is home to about a million inhabitants. The problem for unsuspecting neighbors such as the bison: This huge network of residences is underground; in other words, trespassers don’t even know that they have mistakenly wandered into bad boy territory. Any step can therefore elicit an attack from a bad boy gang. The same applies to fellow prairie dogs—for these creatures, life is a fight with no holds barred: In every town there are multiple clans, and each will defend its borders to the bitter end. If members of two rival clans meet, the animals rear up on their hind legs and go after one another, scratching, punching, and biting like there’s no tomorrow.
Aside from all the “Rambo” behavior, C. ludovicianus has another unexpected ability. “The rodents have one of the world’s most complex languages, that’s second only to the human language,” says Con Slobodchikoff. For years the Northern Arizona University zoologist has been recording the barking of prairie dogs and analyzing the structure, frequency, and rhythm. “For any potential enemy, there is a very specific linguistic code,” explains Slobodchikoff. “But that’s not all.” A warning bark, for example, can contain all of the following information: “Warning—coyote! One coyote, large, fit, 200 feet away, running slowly toward the northeast.” And at volumes as high as 90 decibels—comparable to the loudness of a jackhammer—these daredevils’ warning and threat calls reach the remotest corners of their territory.
One of C. ludovicianus’s most striking exclamations is the so-called jump-yip. Prairie dogs jump on their hind legs, stretch their body and pull their head back, press their front paws together as if to pray, and let out several “yip-yip” cries in succession. This behavior seems to be highly contagious: If one prairie dog starts to jump-yip, the rest of the members of its clan immediately join in. But what are the rodents expressing? Some scientists suspect the animals are making it clear to their enemies: “This is our territory. Uninvited visitors better keep out!” Another theory holds that the “yip-yip” chorus is nothing more than a cry of joy conveying the sentiment: “Hooray! The coast is clear! We’ve driven out all of our enemies.” Either way, the main thing for the prairie dogs is that they remain masters of the grasslands. And whoever dares question their standing will feel the bad boys’ full force.
THE REAL BAD BOY!
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