Nature Discovery with Renée! Hint: Keystone Species

Time for an adventure this week with Librarian Renée! Today’s Nature Discovery blog will feature an amazing animal that lives in our neighborhood!

If there is one thing we are all learning about our current situation, it’s the importance of community and looking out for each other.  Whether it’s being Safer at Home, supporting our essential workers, wearing masks, or social distancing, it is all for the greater good of the community.  We are all doing what we can to keep our families and neighborhoods healthy and safe.  When it comes to community strength, this week’s animal leads by example!

Can you guess who I am?

  • I am a Keystone Species (read on to learn what that is!)
  • Just like most of you, I live with my family in a town, which is made up of neighborhoods
  • I have over 11 distinct calls and many different gestures that I use to communicate with my family and neighbors
  • French explorers named me “Little Dog” because of the barking sound I make
  • Even though I sound like a dog, I am actually a member of the squirrel family or Sciuridae

If you guessed Prairie Dog, you are correct!

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)
Black-Tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)

Follow any of the open space trails in the area and you will eventually cross at least one prairie dog colony or “town”.  These towns are divided into neighborhoods, or wards by ridges, roads, ditches, and forested areas, just like our neighborhoods!  The wards are then broken down further into families, or coteries.  A coterie of prairie dogs consists of a single adult male, several females, and their young, within a territory of about an acre.  These families will remain together throughout their lives, with only the adult males venturing out to form new territories and coteries.  The adult females will have one litter a year, consisting of four to six pups.  The pups are usually born in early March and will stay underground for four to six weeks until they are ready to see the world. And when you see a Prairie dog colony you’re only seeing the half of it!!

All those mounds you see are connected by vast underground tunnels that connect other boroughs. Prairie dog tunnels always have a front door and a back door for a quick escape.

These tunnels make a perfect place to hide from predators, to stay warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and there’s ample room for visitors. Prairie dog colonies are home to many species of animals including snakes, rabbits, and land dwelling birds such as the Mountain Plover. Prairie Dog colonies are also the home to burrowing owls, which is a threatened species in Colorado, and the black footed ferret, which is an endangered species. If you could peer into a prairie dog town, it would look like a thriving community!


Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)
Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)

The tunnels make an excellent motel and the prairie dog makes a yummy snack!!  Many of the animals boarding in the tunnels eat their host! Not to mention the dangers from above. Coyotes, fox, eagles, and hawks, just to name a few. Leaving the safety of the coterie is dangerous. Female prairie dogs can live three to five years, but because the males leave to form new territories, they have a shorter life span.

Yes, it’s a dangerous world for the prairie dog, but they are clever and have developed a complex communication system. They can communicate when danger is near and what type of danger (is it coming from land or sky?) and they communicate when the coast is clear. They can communicate just how far away they are and if it’s time to come home. When they get home, they communicate with love and affection. Prairie dogs will greet family members with a kiss!!

Prairie dogs are truly amazing creatures and so important to a healthy ecosystem. Their colonies provide homes to others, they are a food source for many, and with a diet of low growth vegetation, they actually help keep the prairie healthy. The success and survival of many species depend on the prairie dog, so much so that when a colony dies or is removed, other species suffer. That my friends is the definition of a Keystone species.

The next time you are out on the  rails and you see a prairie dog colony, stop for a moment to appreciate this complex and vital community.

Until next week, happy adventures!



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