The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) is a rodent classified within the squirrel family Sciuridae. Considered a pest to ranchers throughout the Great Plains, they are also an iconic favorite to visitors of western national parks.
This ground squirrel species lives in connecting subterranean burrows called towns. The burrows consist of multi-generational groups and are used for breeding and predator avoidance. Interestingly, female prairie dogs enter reproductive Estrus between February and April for only one day each year. Despite this apparent barrier to reproduction, the species was once the most abundant mammal in the United States.
The habit of grooming the entrance to burrows and dispersing both horizontally and vertically throughout the landscape plays an important role in engineering the physical and biological characteristics of the prairie habitat they occupy. Hundreds of vertebrate and invertebrate species are linked to the actions of prairie dogs and their towns. Prairie dog specialists like black-footed ferrets declined to near extinction wherever the rodents were extirpated by ranchers, while species like mountain plover and burrowing owl are dependent on the town's tunnels for nesting habitat. Even bison and pronghorns depend on prairie dogs since these mega-fauna species feed on the young nutrient rich vegetation that is meticulously maintained in a growing state by the rodent's selective foraging habits.
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