Wildwood Zoo

Meet the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs at Wildwood Zoo

Prairie Dogs

As many of you have noticed, we have experienced a drastic decrease in our prairie dog population over the last year.  Our zoo staff has been closely monitoring the colony (with the help of cameras) and we have determined that we still have at least one individual utilizing the exhibit.  Unfortunately, we believe he is the last remaining prairie dog.  We are not entirely certain why we experienced such a great loss of animals but our top suspicions include: a disease that was introduced, predation, or a genetic abnormality that affected a large portion of the population. 

While we would love to introduce more prairie dogs into the exhibit, a few considerations prevent us from doing so immediately.  First, we would like to discover exactly why our population declined so rapidly so we can work to prevent this from occurring again.  Secondly, the WI DNR does not allow transportation of  prairie dogs into the state.  This makes replacing our population very difficult as few zoos in WI have large enough colonies that would be able to assist us in rebuilding our colony.  Keeping these two factors in mind, we are currently discussing the best plan moving forward for both our animals and the exhibit.

Prairie dogs occur only in North America. They are rodents within the squirrel family.  Generally, the black-tailed prairie dog occurs east of the other four species in more mesic habitat.  Prairie dogs are small, stout ground squirrels. The total length of an adult black-tailed prairie dog is approximately 14-17 inches. The weight of an individual ranges from 1 to 3 pounds. Individual appearances within the species vary in mixed colors of brown, black, gray, and white. The black-tipped tail is characteristic.  Black-tailed prairie dogs are diurnal, burrowing animals. They do not hibernate.  The black-footed ferret, swift fox, mountain plover, ferruginous hawk, and burrowing owl are dependent upon prairie dogs, using their burrows to live in and to find food.

The historic range of the black-tailed prairie dog included portions of 11 states, Canada, and Mexico.  The species is currently present in 11 states including Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.

Black-tailed prairie dogs typically inhabit short-grass prairies; they usually avoid areas of heavy brush and tall grass, possibly because visibility is considerably reduced.

Reproduction occurs once per year, with the exact timing of mating varying with latitude. In Oklahoma, breeding takes place in January; in Colorado breeding takes place in February. Between late February and March, black-tailed prairie dogs in South Dakota breed. Finally, those animals residing in the northern portions of the species range breed in late March and early April. Females of this species are typically sexually receptive only one day of the year. Females failing to conceive after this initial estrus sometimes enter estrus a second time about 13 days after their first estrus.  Gestation ranges in length from 33 to 38 days.  Litter sizes at birth range from 1 to 8 young.  Young are altricial, being born blind, naked, and mostly helpless. Fur is evident by the age of 3 weeks, and eyes are open by approximately 5 weeks of age.

Life Expectancy
In the wild: 1-5 years
In human care: 9 years

Natural Diet
Black-tailed prairie dogs eat primarily leaves, stems, and roots of grasses, weeds, and forbs. Although vegetable matter comprises over 98% of the diet, animal matter may sometimes be ingested. The animals typically eaten by prairie dogs are grasshoppers, cutworms, bugs, and beetles. Wild black-tailed prairie dogs do not need to drink water in order to get the moisture they need to survive. They obtain all the moisture they need from their moist, leafy foods. Most prairie dogs forage close to their burrows when possible, moving into distant foraging areas only when forced to do so by local shortages of green shoots.


Black-tailed Prairie Dog
Range in North America

map prairie dogs 
For more information, please visit the Prairie Dog Coalition

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