FROSTBURG, MD (March 7, 2013)Prairie dogs pull up stakes and look for a new place to live when all their close kin have disappeared from their home territory--a striking pattern of dispersal that has not been observed for any other species. This is according to a new study published in Science by behavioral ecologist John Hoogland, Professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Appalachian Laboratory. He has been studying the ecology and social behavior of prairie dogs in national parks in Arizona, South Dakota, and Utah for the last 40 years.
For most animals, individuals leave a territory, or disperse, to avoid competition with nearby relatives, such as mother or sibling. For three species of prairie dogs, however, individuals are more likely to disperse in the absence of nearby close kin. Females are 12.5 times more likely to disperse when close kin are absent for one species, and 5.5 times more likely for another species.
Prairie dogs are large, burrowing rodents of the squirrel family. They live in colonies in grassland ecosystems of western North America, and forage aboveground on grasses and other plants from dawn until dusk. Within colonies, prairie dogs live in territorial, contiguous family groups called clans, which typically contain one mature male, two to five mature females, and one or two adolescent males. Hoogland has been trying to figure out which individuals disperse from the territory of birth, and why.
"The key to our research is that we live with the prairie dogs for five months of every year," says Hoogland. "Students and I climb into our observation towers at the study-colony at dawn each morning before the prairie dogs wake up, and we stay there until the last individual has submerged into its burrow for the night."
The prairie dogs all have numbered eartags (which are inserted at weaning and remain their entire lifetime), and the flank of each individual is uniq
|Contact: Amy Pelsinsky|
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science