The Bad Boys of the Prairie

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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 at­tacker in this photo is not the highly ven­omous rat­tlesnake— it’s ac­tu­ally the prairie dog. It doesn’t sit well with him that the snake has seen fit to re­pose right in front of his res­i­dence, so the prairie dog makes sure the snake knows it has...

As with any tough guy, prairie dogs have a gen­tle side too. Within a fam­ily, the ro­dents will hug, kiss, and groom one an­other, and they love to play. That is, of course, un­til one of the furry friends de­cides to eat pre­cisely the blade of grass that...

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