Cynomys leucuruswhite-tailed prairie dog

Geographic Range

White-tailed prairie dogs, like all prairie dogs, are found only in North America. White-tailed prairie dog colonies are found in Wyoming, northwest Colorado, northeastern Utah, and south central Montana. They once occurred more widely, but eradication efforts have shrunk their range. White-tailed prairie dogs thrive in dry, high altitude areas. (Center for Native Ecosystems, 2006; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, 2008; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2004)

Habitat

White-tailed prairie dogs are normally found anywhere from 5000 to 10,000 ft above sea level. They usually occupy areas that are higher in elevation than other prairie dog species, such as black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). Their habitat is dry, desert grasslands and shrublands. Sage is especially important as a form of cover. (Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966)

  • Range elevation
    1500 to 3000 m
    4921.26 to 9842.52 ft

Physical Description

White-tailed prairie dogs are small prairie dogs, with males slightly larger than females. The fur is light brown with a blackish-brown patch above and below each eye. The characteristic that distinguishes them most easily from other prairie dogs is their white-tipped tail, but habitat type also distinguishes species. Head and body length in adult males is between 342 and 399 mm in length. Females range from 315 to 375 mm. Males weigh 750 to 1700 g and females from 675 to 1200 g. Females weigh much less during the breeding season, but gain weight during pregnancy and early lactation which is normally during late March and April. After lactation they lose much of their weight, gaining it steadily back throughout the summer until they become inactive in the fall. White-tailed prairie dogs pups weigh between 100 and 150 g when they first emerge from their burrows, which is about a month after they are born. They gain weight throughout the summer as well, until they enter hibernation in the fall. (Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    675 to 1700 g
    23.79 to 59.91 oz
  • Average mass
    1139 g
    40.14 oz
  • Range length
    315 to 399 mm
    12.40 to 15.71 in

Reproduction

White-tailed prairie dogs mate after they emerge from hibernation in mid to late March. Usually a male will approach a female from the rear and mount her. Sometimes males indicate he wants to mate by thrusting his snout into the genital region of a female and lifting her tail. Mounts can last for a few seconds or as long as two minutes, during which time he will rub or stroke the female with his fore-limbs. Often the female will roll over to stop the mating and females have been known to attack males between mountings, pushing them back or biting them. Copulation occurs in the open, close to burrow entrances. As a result, other males often interrupt mating. (Erpino, 1968)

Breeding generally occurs after females emerge from hibernation in late March and early April. Gestation lasts about 30 days, offspring are born during late April and early May. Newborn young don't leave their burrows for 5 to 7 weeks, appearing in early June. A prairie dog litter averages 5 young, but can be as few as 2 or as many as 8. White tailed prairie dogs have one litter annually and begin breeding at 1 year old. Females nurse and care for the pups. Aggression from adult males to pups has been observed in populations but is not common. (Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966)

  • Breeding interval
    White tailed prairie dogs breed once a year.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding season occurs when females emerge from hibernation during late March and Early June.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 8
  • Average gestation period
    30 days
  • Range weaning age
    4 to 5 weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

In white-tailed prairie dogs females are the primary caretakers of their offspring. After birth young are nursed for 4 to 5 weeks until they are able to emerge from the burrows. Males do not participate in the care of their offspring. After a pup emerges from the burrow for the first time, it is relatively independent. During the mornings, females are the first ones out of the burrow and give warning calls if there are predators nearby. This is one of the only ways females protect their young after pups emerge from the burrow. (Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Like many wild animals, it is difficult to estimate the lifespan of white-tailed prairie dogs. Predation by a myriad of different animals and the hunting of prairie dogs by humans for sport results in high mortality rates. Among pups there is about a 40% mortality rate. (Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966)

Behavior

White-tailed prairie dogs are diurnal. Like many prairie dog species, they are rarely active outside of their burrows after sunset or before sunrise. Though it is not true of all species of prairie dog, C. leucurus is inactive during the winter. They mate and give birth in early spring and spend the rest of the spring, summer, and fall feeding. (Campbell and Clark, 1981; Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966)

At sunrise white-tailed prairie dogs begin to emerge from their burrows. The adults, usually females, come out first to check for predators, and then pups appear. They are most active during mid morning and mid afternoon. White-tailed prairie dogs spend most of their days feeding and playing. After winter, when prairie dogs emerge from hibernation, there is normally some time spent repairing the burrows and mounds surrounding them, though this activity is rare at any other time of the year. During bad weather prairie dogs stay underground. White-tailed prairie dog colonies are divided into several family clans. An average colony has about six different clans. White-tailed prairie dog clans often feed in the same areas, especially when there is plenty of food around. Pups typically stay near their home burrow and spend much of their days playing with others. Pups of the same clan often wrestle and chase each other around. Unlike other species of prairie dogs, white-tailed prairie dog pups have been observed playing and interacting with pups from other clans, even entering the burrow of a pup from another clan. Little is known about the social structure of white-tailed prairie dogs as they spend so much of their time underground. Females typically cease interactions with their pups soon after pups emerge from burrows. Adult male white-tailed prairie dogs often wander much farther from their clans, especially during breeding season. Adult males and pups rarely interact and adults sometimes display aggression towards pups. When a pup matures, they move to the periphery of the colony or to another colony altogether. (Campbell and Clark, 1981; Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966)

Home Range

The average white-tailed prairie dog colony is about 54 acres. Though there are usually no discernible boundaries, prairie dogs do not usually wander far from their clans within colonies. In white-tailed prairie dog colonies there are about 22 burrows per acre, both active and abandoned. Burrows are located around shrubs and usually have a few mounds surrounding the entrances. (Campbell and Clark, 1981; Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966)

Communication and Perception

Communication between and among white-tailed prairie dogs is highly visual and auditory. Prairie dogs are named for their trademark "bark". Though other species of prairie dog have many calls, some specific for certain types of predators, most scientists recognize only five different calls for white-tailed prairie dogs. The "repetitious bark" is used to alert others of a threat. The "laughing bark" is a signal for group cohesion. The "snarl" is used as an intense threat. The "growl" is used as a mild threat, and the "scream" is a distress call. (Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966; Waring, 1970)

Visual signals are also widely used in C. leucurus. If a group of prairie dogs is feeding and an individual stands up and looks around, all the others in the area will also stand up and survey the area. White-tailed prairie dogs use mounds surrounding their burrows as lookout points. (Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966; Waring, 1970)

There is little evidence of communication by contact among C. leucurus. However, a type of "kiss" has been observed among pups and from pup to adult. Also, when a male wants to mate, he might signal to a female by sticking his snout in her genital region and lifting her tail. (Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966; Waring, 1970)

Food Habits

White-tailed prairie dogs are herbivores, eating grasses and sedges. During the spring, when they emerge from winter dormancy, they eat sagebrush and saltbush because other foods are not yet mature enough to eat. As other foods become available, they switch to forbs, such as dandelions, and grasses, such as western wheatgrass. White-tailed prairie dogs also eat mature seed heads of grasses, forbs, and sedges when they are available. White-tailed prairie dogs seem to get all the water they need from the foods they eat, as adults are rarely observed drinking and pups drink only occasionally. Pups are nursed until they emerge from burrows. When they are old enough to emerge from burrows they eat the same foods as adults. White-tailed prairie dogs spend spring, summer, and fall eating in preparation for their dormancy in the winter. (Tileston and Lechleitner, 1966)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • flowers

Predation

White-tailed prairie dogs have many natural predators. Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) prey almost exclusively on all species of prairie dogs. American badgers (Taxidea taxus) and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are also important predators of prairie dogs. Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), coyotes (Canis latrans), raccoons (Procyon lotor), skunks (Mephitis mephitis), American minks (Martes americana), and weasels (Mustela) are all opportunistic predators of white-tailed prairie dogs as well. Nine other species of raptors have been sighted in or around prairie dog colonies and probably prey on them. (Campbell and Clark, 1981)

White-tailed prairie dogs live in colonies of burrows. Sentinel animals are always stationed near burrow entrances and signal with energetic whistles when danger is noticed. Colony members rely on this vigilance network and escaping to their burrows for protection from predation. White-tailed prairie dogs are also cryptically colored, helping to protect them from predation.

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Despite the fact that white-tailed prairie dog populations have been severely decimated, they remain vital parts of high altitude grassland and sagebrush ecosystems. White-tailed prairie dogs are prey for many grassland predators. Black footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) rely almost exclusively on prairie dogs for prey and use their burrows for shelter. Prairie dogs aerate and mix the soil by burrowing which in turn provides better grazing for American pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) and other herbivores. Aerating the soil also makes it easier for water to penetrate deeper into the ground, making it more fertile for plants, especially sagebrush.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

White-tailed prairie dogs provide crucial grazing lands for bison, pronghorn antelope, and domestic livestock. Prairie dog towns often have more fertile soil and better grass and sedge production than other areas surrounding them. This is a result of the mixing and aerating of soil by burrowing. The biological waste produced by prairie dogs also helps fertilize the soil. Many prairie dog towns are protected and located within national parks and provide natural scenery and a safe wildlife experience for the thousands of people who see them every year. (Center for Native Ecosystems, 2006; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, 2008; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2004)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

White-tailed prairie dogs have been considered a pest for many years by farmers. Though prairie dog towns create optimal grazing lands for domestic livestock, they also destroy crops. A prairie dog colony will reduce available forage. As a result, farmers have been trying to eradicate these rodents for many years. White-tailed prairie dogs can also carry diseases such as sylvatic plague, which can decimate populations of animals, including prairie dogs. (Center for Native Ecosystems, 2006; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, 2008; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2004)

Conservation Status

White-tailed prairie dogs have so far survived many concerted extermination programs. In 1915, the Biological Survey began programs to exterminate prairie dogs. In 1923 Wyoming state law required prairie dogs to be exterminated. By the end of 1923 95 to 100% of prairie dogs in Wyoming were killed. Since 1915, millions of hectares of prairie dog land had been poisoned. Prairie dogs have survived these eradication programs and are now making a comeback because of reduced efforts to control the population and protection by national parks. Though they are extremely reduced in population from what they once were, white-tailed prairie dogs still remain a low priority for protection. (Campbell and Clark, 1981)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Sam Goldbroch (author), University of Oregon, Stephen Frost (editor, instructor), University of Oregon.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

choruses

to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species

colonial

used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

fossorial

Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

hibernation

the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

soil aeration

digs and breaks up soil so air and water can get in

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5? N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

Campbell, T., T. Clark. 1981. Colony Characteristics and Vertebrate Associates of White-tailed and Black-tailed Prairie Dogs in Wyoming. American Midland Naturalist, Vol.105, No. 2: 269-276. Accessed November 15, 2007 at http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0031%28198104%29105%3A2%3C269%3ACCAVAO%3E2.0.CO%3B2-7.

Center for Native Ecosystems, 2006. "Center for Native Ecosystems" (On-line). Accessed October 10, 2007 at http://www.nativeecosystems.org/species/white-tailed-prairie-dog-1/white-tailed-prairie-dog.

Erpino, M. 1968. Copulatory Behavior in the White-tailed Prairie Dog. American Midland Naturalist, Vol. 79, No.1: 250-251.

Hoogland, J. 1981. The Evolution of Coloniality in White-tailed and Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (Sciuridae: Cynomys Leucurus and C. Ludovicianus). Ecology, Vol.62, No.1: 252-272. Accessed November 15, 2007 at http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0012-9658%28198102%2962%3A1%3C252%3ATEOCIW%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, 2008. "White-tailed Prairie Dog Detailed Information" (On-line). Animal Field Guide. Accessed October 10, 2007 at http://fwp.mt.gov/fieldguide/detail_AMAFB06020.aspx.

Tileston, J., R. Lechleitner. 1966. Some Comparisons of the Black-tailed and White-tailed Prairie Dogs in. American Midland Naturalist, Vol. 75, No. 2: 292-316.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2004. "White-tailed Prairie Dog Homepage" (On-line). Accessed October 10, 2007 at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/wtprairiedog/.

Waring, G. 1970. Sound Communications of Black-tailed, White-tailed, and Gunnison's Prairie Dogs. American Midland Naturalist, Vol. 83, No.1: 167-185. Accessed November 15, 2007 at http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0031%28197001%2983%3A1%3C167%3ASCOBWA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-V.