Compiled by Nicole Rivard
Last year Friends of Animals’ newest project, the Wildlife Law Program, chose protection of prairie dogs as one of its cornerstone missions. It didn’t take long before the program jumped into action to defend the Utah prairie dog against a frivolous attack by the Pacific Legal Foundation, an anti-environmental, pro-property legal rights group. The foundation filed suit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on behalf of a group of property owners in Cedar City, Utah who claim the listing of the prairie dog as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act infringes on their constitutional rights.
The Wildlife Law Program tapped FoA member John Hoogland, who has a PhD in zoology and has been studying prairie dogs for 41 years, to testify in the case and pursue the rights of prairie dogs before he left in the spring on a five-month adventure to observe Gunnison's prairie dogs at Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. Read here why he is the best man for the job.
A simple question—Why do animals live in groups?—changed your life. Can you describe the moment when you realized discovering answers to this question could inspire your life’s work?
When I wanted to study why animals live in groups, I initiated research with Wyoming ground squirrels in March 1974. I discovered six weeks into my project that although they are gregarious, Wyoming ground squirrels do not live in distinct colonies with clear boundaries. I was devastated, and one night just sobbed. My wife of three months (Judy), immediately suggested, ‘Why not study prairie dogs? Everybody knows that prairie dogs live in colonies.’ The next day I started to study prairie dogs instead of Wyoming ground squirrels. That’s one of the best decisions I ever made. Thanks, Judy!
What makes prairie dogs so special?
When I drove up to a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs for the first time in April 1974, some of the residents were chasing and fighting. Others were constructing large mounds at the entrances to burrows. And others appeared to be kissing and grooming each other. At frequent but unpredictable times, an individual would jump into the air and vocalize in a way that initiated a chain-reaction of other jump-vocalizations. I remember saying out loud to myself after about 10 minutes at that colony, “I could study these animals for the next 10 years.” Alas, my upcoming research in 2014 will be my 41st year of research with prairie dogs.
Students and I have devoted more than 185,000 man-hours of research over the last 41 years in our attempt to figure out how certain females manage to live as long as eight years, why only some individuals give an alarm call when a red fox attacks, why some females kill the offspring of close kin and why females avoid mating with close kin such as fathers and sons but commonly mate with more distant kin such as first and second cousins. These are only some of the mesmerizing issues that chain us to our observation towers each spring.
What role does the prairie dog play in its ecosystem?
The prairie dog (all species) is a keystone species, and that means that it has a profound impact on its grassland ecosystem. Prairie dogs serve as prey for terrestrial predators such as American badgers, black-footed ferrets, bobcats, coyotes and long-tailed weasels, and for avian predators such as ferruginous hawks, golden eagles, northern goshawks, prairie falcons and Swainson’s hawks. Their burrows provide homes for a diverse array of animals, such as black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, bull snakes, tiger salamanders and hundreds of species of insects and spiders. The burrows also improve cycling of water and other nutrients. The subsoil exposed by excavations at colony-sites promotes the growth of certain plants, such as the aptly-named prairie dog weed, that do not commonly grow elsewhere. And plants at colony-sites commonly have more nutrition than the same plants away from colony-sites, so that American bison and pronghorn antelope prefer to feed at colony-sites.
What is your most surprising finding about prairie dogs?
Perhaps my most sensational discoveries concern communal nursing and infanticide. Female black-tailed prairie dogs frequently nurse the unweaned offspring of close kin such as sisters and daughters. But in dry years when competition is severe, females commonly kill rather than nurse the offspring of close kin. Life for prairie dogs is all about balancing extreme cooperation such as communal nursing with extreme competition such as infanticide.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about prairie dogs?
That they are prolific breeders and therefore resemble rats. In reality several factors severely limit reproduction of prairie dogs. Even in good years with copious rainfall each female is sexually receptive on only a single day of the year and can wean a maximum of only one litter per year.
Why did you decide to help Friends of Animals protect prairie dogs?
Saving prairie dogs is a formidable task. But it’s a battle that we can win, because prairie dogs are so resilient to threats such as shooting, poisoning and destruction of habitat. I am happy to help FoA and every other organization that is trying to preserve my favorite animals.
What is your current research with prairie dogs?
The main focus of my research has always been the mating system. Students and I have known for years that each female (all species) frequently mates with more than one male (i.e., is polyandrous) during the five-six hours of sexual receptivity on a single day. We have just discovered that females reap three clear, compelling benefits from polyandry: They are more likely to conceive, they rear larger litters to weaning and their offspring are more likely to survive in the first year after weaning. Wow! But polyandrous females also pay a cost, because they are less likely than monandrous females to survive until the next mating season. Over the next several years we will further investigate the costs and benefits of polyandry for female prairie dogs. The results are certain to be provocative, so stay tuned.