Animals are not people too, contrary to the emotional assertion of some humans who weigh the rights of animals as greater or equal to that of men. Almost all vertebrates exhibit some behavior patterns that if they were human would get them incarcerated in prison or a mental hospital. Imagine a mother, usually a vegetarian, who regularly attempted to break into her sister’s house to feed upon her babies. A case such as this would horrify everybody, and it would attract national attention. But it is normal behavior for the black-tailed prairie dog ( Cynomys ludovicianus ).
39% of prairie dog litters are cannibalized by lactating sisters.
Prairie dogs are primarily vegetarian; feeding upon wheat grass, buffalo grass, scarlet globemallow, rabbit brush, thistle, prickly pear cactus, and roots. They occasionally eat insects and bison manure as well. However, lactating females regularly seek out and cannibalize their sister’s pups. Prairie dog cannibalism is the leading cause of mortality among pups–39% of baby prairie dogs are killed by their aunts. Cannibalism occurs among other species of squirrels but at a much lower rate, and the act is executed by unrelated squirrels.
John Hoogland, the scientist who first studied prairie dog cannibalism, believes this cannibalistic behavior evolved for 5 reasons.
- Removal of future competition.
- Extra nutrition for lactating females.
- Less competition for foraging. After a prairie dog loses her pups she will stop defending her territory and range farther for food.
- Females without pups spend more time scanning the landscape for predators, thus helping the security of the entire prairie dog town.
- Lactating females who lose their pups are less likely to prey on other prairie dog pups
Prairie dogs are a keystone species that co-existed with bison in the North American short grass prairie region for millions of years. Studies show prairie dog activity greatly benefits the environment. Their burrows help drain the soil preventing erosion. They churn up soil, increasing fertility, and prairie dog towns host a variety of plants that are more nutritious for grazers than areas without prairie dogs. Yet, most local governments consider prairie dogs a pest and have mandatory eradication programs. Prairie dogs wrongly get blamed for denuded ranges that have been overgrazed by livestock. There is also a myth that cows and horses can break their legs in prairie dog holes, though an example of this has never been documented.
The late Larry Haverfield protected prairie dogs on his 7000 acre ranch because he recognized the benefits they provided. In 2006 the Kansas authorities ordered him to poison the prairie dogs on his land and when he refused, they threw him in jail. A court injunction stopped the local county in Kansas from eradicating the prairie dogs on his property, and now his land serves as an environmentally friendly refuge where once common but now rare prairie wildlife still thrives. The endangered black-footed ferret, a predator of prairie dogs, was re-introduced here. Hopefully, science will some day overcome the myths and misinformation so many ranchers have about this important beneficial species.
The Black-tailed Prairie Dog: Social Life of a Burrowing Mammal
University of Chicago Press 1995