Can the Prairie Dog Be Saved?

Rodent's comical antics belie difficult, bloody lifestyle.

March 16, 2013, 10:02 PM

March 17, 2013— -- John Hoogland dragged his new bride up the side of a mountain a while back to watch a colony of prairie dogs go about a day's work. Within about 10 minutes, the young graduate student concluded he could "study these things for 10 years."

It's 40 years later now, and he's still studying them, turning up dirty secrets that nobody knew were there until he started spending five months every spring watching the dramas unfold in one of nature's more complex societies.

The prairie dog may be losing a long battle to survive, threatened constantly by the changing Western landscape and everything from fleas to the bubonic plague to its own kinfolk. It turns out there is a nasty side to the story of a highly social animal known for public displays of affection and cooperation.

Hoogland found the bloody evidence himself a few years ago when, following up on a suspicion, he used a backhoe to dig into a recently abandoned burrow. There, just as he had expected, he found the corpses of five infant prairie dogs, slain by a relative while mom was out looking for food.

"They were committing infanticide," Hoogland said in a late night phone interview from his outpost this year at Valles Caldera National Preserve near Los Alamos, N.M.

For some scientists, that single discovery might have been enough to make them move on to another subject, but not for Hoogland. He continued digging deeper and found that killing their babies is only part of the story.

They may kill babies when there isn't enough food to go around, but they instinctively know that without their family they don't have a chance of surviving.

So a mother that would have killed her sister's offspring during a lean year would nurse those same babies during a good year.

"The social behavior of the prairie dog comes down to two words, cooperation and competition," Hoogland said.

In his latest research, published in the journal Science, Hoogland shows that a female prairie dog will abandon the burrow if all her kinfolk have disappeared, and search for relatives in other clans. She knows she is going to need them.

That probably happens often these days. There have been repeated efforts to wipe out prairie dogs over the past 150 years, and their numbers are dwindling.

"All five species are rare now," Hoogland said. "All of them occupy less than 5 percent of the habitat they occupied 150 years ago."

They are easy targets for shooters, their land is increasingly more valuable for shopping centers or homes or farms than for dog houses, and many die from bubonic plague, which they can carry and inflict upon other animals, including humans.

"When the plague moves in, all the prairie dogs die," Hoogland said.

He believes "billions" have died over the past century, often because of extermination efforts by various government agencies, but primarily because, as he put it: "You either love 'em, or hate 'em, but most people hate 'em."

Hoogland is a behavior ecologist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Appalachian Laboratory, and each year he takes three or four research assistants for five months of torture in some desolate, cold place. They get no pay, and they must pay their own expenses. All he promises them is long hours, hard work, and freezing temperatures in the higher elevations where prairie dogs like to make their homes.

His "scare letter" to applicants makes it clear: Don't expect him to hold your hand, and if you don't love studying animal behavior, go away.

"Before agreeing to work with John I was warned by a past assistant that he works his assistants hard, but we could never work as hard as he does, and I came to agree with that quickly," said Frank Castelli, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University who worked with Hoogland in 2003.

"Working with John showed me a level of passion that one must have to study organisms," said Castelli, who still hears from Hoogland a decade later. "I frequently seek his advice and he readily provides it."

Hoogland was still a young scientist when he made a disturbing discovery. When a mother dog left her burrow in search of food, other prairie dogs would invade her space.

"Then they would come up and lick their claws in a special way and sometimes they would have bloody faces," he said. "We thought, 'gee whiz, is it possible they are killing those babies down there?' Then we found that when the mother came back her behavior changed immediately. Instead of being aggressive and defensive, she just stopped defending that burrow and would start sleeping somewhere else almost immediately.

"So we thought there was a marauder down there killing babies," he said.

For a couple of years the researchers tried to dig down every time they witnessed an apparent homicide to find what had happened, but the digging was slow -- burrows are often 15 feet deep -- and by the time they dug deeply enough there wasn't anything left. The burrows, of course, are full of tiny parasites that can destroy evidence in a matter of hours.

So in 1984, Hoogland returned to the site with a new tool: a backhoe. It didn't take long to unearth the evidence he had been seeking.

It doesn't happen every year, he said. It depends on the availability of resources. In a good year, the clan can enjoy the benefits of living in a colony: mutual grooming to remove fleas, lice, ticks and mites; additional paws to dig the burrows, which can be 60 feet across and provide protection for the entire colony; sounding an alarm when a predator nears; communal nursing to improve the chances that more pups will survive.

However, the odds of surviving are not in the prairie dog's favor.

Hoogland is encouraged by the growth of organizations like the Prairie Dog Coalition, which consists of "thousands of people who donate their weekends and their time to trying to save prairie dogs." And there is growing support within the scientific community.

"In the last 10 to 15 years, biologists have realized that the prairie dog is a keystone species," as prey as well as predator, and "if we get rid of prairie dogs, the West as we know it is going to be a very different place," he said.

Incidentally, Hoogland carries out his work by observing the animals in their natural habitat, not dissecting them in his lab to see what's inside. The closest the animals come to that is being captured, splattered with a little paint for identification, and released.

Hoogland also took his wife, and his four kids, on those cold five-month excursions into prairie dog land. He's still married, and his kids are grown, but none became scientists. Maybe they read his scare letter.

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