Stop! Badger Time.

Whoops. Looks like I failed a bit at the keeping up with a blog plan I had set out to complete. My excuse? Only that I was hanging out with prairie dogs 90 hours a week and barely had time to eat or sleep… In any case, my sincerest apologies to those of you that have been tossing and turning and pining day after day for another update on the prairie dogs of Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge. To make up for all of the grief I have caused – I’m starting my return to blogging with a post on… THE BADGER.

Let’s start this harrowing tale from the beginning…

Only a few weeks into research in March, the badger moved into a burrow right in front of John’s tower – this location is at the very heart of our prairie dog colony with easy access to everything. At first, everyone was in a tizzy about this magnificent beast:

“look at it run!”       “it’s furry!”       “it’s digging!”      “badger badger badger!”

And so we all grew to like the badger – she was sassy, fluffy and had charisma. We named her Barbara. Time went on, the research continued and the badger lived happily in her burrow, and everything was well and good in the world.

Until one day, like a slap to the face, she caught a ground squirrel, and then another – snatching them up like candy. It was then that we realized: it was only a matter of time before she was picking off our prairie dog pals.

Barbara sassing it up with her uber fat ground squirrel catch

Instead of feeling intrigued as she scampered about the colony, we began to feel an impending sense of doom. As the warmer weather approached, she got fatter… “Dear god! This badger is pregnant!,” we realized. Then she began using the dried up stream beds that connect all of our areas as a secret network of predator tunnels. Somehow the prairie dogs could sense her in the stream. They would call and run, and stand tippy-toe alert, but there was never a sign of the badger. It was like the J.Lo box office hit: “Anaconda.” Except instead of a swamp there was a lot of sage, and instead of a giant snake there was a badger. It was Badgerconda… and it was only a matter of time…

Finally, after day after day of badger sitings and ground squirrel killings, it happened…

Barbara claimed her first prairie dog victim.

But she decided to lay low after that, and it wasn’t until her babies arrived that the real rampage began. (In her defense, she has four furry little brats to feed, so I guess all is fair in… prairie dogs and badgers?) The arrival of the badger babies also happened to coincide with the arrival of the prairie dog babies. Those poor, naive furry little guys never saw it coming.

Her most common mode of attack is barging out of the stream bed while the babies are feeding away from their burrows. The babies are too stupid to figure out where to run so she just grabs them up with no problem. As of today, she has already eaten nine of my 16 babies, and four of my 12 adults. And those are just my dogs – that’s not even counting all of the babies she’s killed in the other three areas.

Barbara’s victory walk home with her baby prize.

While it’s quite sad to see these prairie dogs that I’ve been watching for months and months killed, it’s also pretty fascinating to see predator-prey dynamics first hand. Alert: I’m about to break it down real nerdy for you: I’d love to see how different environmental factors could change the badger’s behaviors. Would the absence of the man-made streams decrease her success rate? Or perhaps just if the streams were actually filled with water? Has the incredibly dry season impacted her behaviors/health in any way? Is there a correlation between her large litter size and the large number of predations that have occurred? Has all of this time with rodents made me completely insane?

Right now we only have a couple of weeks left out here. All of the data that we came to collect has been gathered, and now we’re literally just sitting and watching for the badger to take out prairie dogs. Riveting stuff.

I will leave you with the only video I could find of a badger attack (Don’t listen to what the guy is saying, and those are definitely ground squirrels). But this is pretty much what we get to see every few days.

Categories: Animal Behavior, Animals, Conservation, Field Research, Prairie Dogs | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

If the burrow’s a-rockin, don’t come a-knockin

Faster than green grass through a sage-grouse, the mating season has come and gone. I didn’t write a live-update during the season because, well, I was just too tired after watching balls of fur sniff each other’s butts and seduce each other into burrows all day. But I’ll give you a summary of what went down.

I will preface this love story with a little info: At the time of the matings, I had six females and three males in the area surrounding my tower and two females and one male about 70 yards away on “the ridge.” Due to the number of prairie dogs I had, it was an intense couple of weeks. Because white-tailed prairie dogs don’t normally copulate above ground, we have to verify matings by observing a number of tell-tale behaviors (I’ll explain these below). But occasionally we get an above ground copulation…

I don’t know if I should be creeped out that she’s staring at me or high-five her for that leg move…

You can tell when the mating season is nearing when the males start to get really rambunctious, territorial, bothersome to the females, and fearless. Fearless being that they travel to distant lands to find females that are ready to do the prairie dog boogaloo. I wish it was fearless in the sense that they could fight off badger’s, but, sadly, that would not end well for the PDs.

Speaking of badgers… there is an exceptionally fat badger in our colony. He hasn’t claimed any victims yet, but he’s still very exciting – but that’s for another post.

Back to prairie dogs doing the dirty… Females enter into estrus, or sexual receptivity, for one day a year i.e. they really need to make it count. So the females will generally try to copulate with more than one male just to really seal the deal, but sometimes they only have access to one male. When you consider the fact that prairie dog males only get to do the prairie-shuffle for a couple of weeks every year, it makes sense that they would get so freaked out that they might miss their window that they act like little hormone-crazed furry pinballs bouncing off of walls until they find a lady friend.

You can tell when a female is entering estrus when the males get really excited and act like the females are the only thing that matters in the world. Typical pre-copulation behavior is kissing, sniffing of rears, and chasing females down burrows and then guarding them. We call this behavior “herding,” where a male chases a female down a burrow and then guards the entrance for a bit so that other males won’t get to her. Such chivalry and romance. These behaviors usually happen until the afternoon when the females start really becoming receptive. At this point, the females start to solicit the males into burrows. They’ll usually mosey up to a male, let them get a good sniff, and then lure them into a burrow with their seductive prairie dog temptress ways.

When a male and a female go into a burrow together we call this a “BD” for “both down.” We begin timing them and record the burrow in which this is taking place. A BD can last anywhere from one minute to a few hours. Generally it takes more than 10 minutes for it to really stick. …yea, ew. After a good copulation, the male runs off to find a new lady and the female goes back to feeding and maybe seducing a new male, if she’s lucky enough to find one. In this scenario my boss would probably say, “JLP – Just like people.” Semi-true, except for the fact that PDs usually groom their genitals after emerging from a copulation. While a little disturbing, it’s really handy for us because we know some PD hanky panky just went down.

Nice work, little dude.

So this is all very exciting, but why do we care who they’re mating with? Good question. It’s important to record the matings so that we know to whom the litters belong once they are dropped.

(side note: I think the term “dropping litters” is awful and hilarious all at the same time. Every time someone says it, I giggle and make a pbbllthhh sound and motion of something splatting with my hand – Yes, I’m a 12-year-old boy – so sorry.)

Back to mating science: By knowing paternity we can track incest, kin-relations and even infanticide patterns. Basically, all of the research we’re doing is linked to knowing the familial relations between the prairie dogs. See why it’s important now? And I know what you’re thinking: what about when they get promiscuous and mate with more than one male? How do you know who the litters belong to then? Well, we don’t necessarily, but usually the first copulation (if it’s a solid one) for the female is the one that counts. This is not always the case so there aren’t always definitive answers.

But this is exactly why it’s so important as a researcher to be extremely vigilant during the mating season. I can’t tell you how many days I got peanut butter in my hair, just because I couldn’t even look down for a second to make sure I was sending my pb&j in the right direction. Luckily, usually only one or two females goes into estrus around the same time, meaning I only have to uber-watch a couple of females all at once. Cool fact – females can actually postpone estrus when there is another competing female in the area to make sure they can copulate. Pretty cool, huh? Ok fine, only cool to me.

At the end of the day, when everyone is collecting their dignity and heading back to their burrows for bed, we continue to watch. A lot of times, the action continues at night – they’ll go to bed together or even sneak down into someone’s burrow after everyone else has gone to sleep. This is why we wait 30 minutes after they’ve all gone to sleep to see if there are any late-night booty calls. We also get to our towers extra early in the morning to see if there are any obvious walks of shame. “JLP” seems extremely accurate here.

So after watching and recording all of these behaviors we have a solid set of data that give us really good ideas on who paired up with each other this season. And now we wait for the juveniles that come about 29 days after the matings (which will actually be fairly soon since it took me a bit to get this post up).

I’m sure that was far more info on prairie dog bedroom relations than you ever wanted to know… but let me leave you with this little bit of prairie dog poetry inspired by my furry friends:

Categories: Animal Behavior, Animals, Conservation, Field Research, Prairie Dogs | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Catch a Prairie Dog

I’ve received a few questions about what goes into trapping a prairie dog. Nothing would bring me more happiness than to tell you. It goes a little something like this:


See what I did there?

While not quite as exciting and creepy as Chris Hansen catching pedophiles, trapping prairie dogs can be mildly entertaining. And as humorous as it would be – we do not run around pouncing on them like kids catching hogs at a rodeo.

Here’s how it really works:

When we decide on our target dog we usually wait for it to wander into an area with burrows that don’t have too many connections. Prairie dog burrows consist of tons and tons of underground tunnels that connect to as many as 30+ other burrows, so the less connections, the easier it is. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. So when we decide a prairie dog is in a prime location for trapping we have another person run up and scare it into a burrow. While that person is frightening the day lights out of the little guy, the other person is in their tower watching with binoculars to make sure they know exactly which burrow the prairie dog runs to. We then surround that burrow with traps.


Sometimes we even stack them a couple traps high because the dogs will occasionally crawl over them. After the surrounding is set, we shove traffic cones into all of the surrounding burrows that could possibly be connected. We used to bait the traps with oats but have since stopped because the moron ground squirrels get trapped too often. This seems like a fool proof system, yes? No. But it’s the best system. Trapping prairie dogs is ridiculously frustrating. They like to dig out new holes, chew through cones or crawl over the traps. They’re kind of a-holes sometimes. Pretty much the only reason a prairie dog would actually go into a trap is because they’re curious. I would say the most entertaining part of trapping prairie dogs is the waiting. Mostly because it involves a lot of cursing, singing and pulling one’s hair out while watching these goobers flirt with the idea of going into a trap for a few hours.

Here’s Admiral Ackbar realizing that “it’s a trap!” I really have no idea what would possess a prairie dog to voluntarily go into a trap when they obviously have the means of escaping our surroundings. Maybe they’re more stupid than I thought, or maybe they’re just desperate for a little human attention. Whatever it is, it’s quite rewarding when you finally trap one.

Suck it, Admiral Ackbar.

Categories: Animal Behavior, Animals, Conservation, Field Research, Prairie Dogs | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Colorado, and prairie dogs, and blogging – oh my!

While it has only been about a week and half since beginning prairie dog research in Walden, CO, it feels like I’ve already been here a month. Perhaps because we work every day. Prairie dogs wait for no one. But in all seriousness, I’m having a great time so far and couldn’t be happier with my decision to join the prairie dog squad.

Before heading out here my boss warned me many many times about being prepared for the weather. Generally around this time of year they experience freezing temperatures, snow, wind and all other conditions you wouldn’t want to be sitting in for 10+ hours. Lucky for me, the non-winter we were having on the east coast seems to have followed me here. Don’t get me wrong, it is no day at the beach here, but I have yet to tape heat packets to my body like a previous researcher warned me I would. And of course as soon as I was writing about our nice weather, we started to get dumped on by snow… go figure. Tomorrow will most likely be an eight layer day.

But enough about weather. Perhaps you’re wondering: “so what exactly is it that you do, Laura?” or “where do you work every day?” and “what does prairie dog research mean?” or maybe more truthfully… “will anyone actually read your blog?”

Because I know you’re dying to know the answers to these questions, I’ve taken the liberty of interviewing myself for your reading pleasure. Tally-ho!

Where are you working?
I work in the Arapaho National Wildlife refuge near Walden, CO.
Here is an example of the awesomeness that I view every day:

What do you do?
I am in charge of observing a specific area within the colony of prairie dogs we are studying. To do this, I sit in one of five towers and observe their actions. At the moment, my area only has one male up, and we already have a love-hate relationship. Why? Most of the prairie dogs have already been painted with markings to identify each individual, unfortunately, many have molted and no longer have their markings. When this occurs we trap them and identify them by their ear tags, repaint them and take DNA samples. The particular male in my area was a nuisance to trap – hence our rocky start. Most of the time I am in my tower observing, and once things pick up I’ll be recording data like a pro, and setting traps for the juveniles. For the time being, I’m reading my kindle (thanks, Dad!) like it’s my job since these little guys haven’t decided to quit hibernating yet.

What exactly are you researching?
My boss, Dr. Hoogland, THE expert on prairie dogs, is focusing on 5 main topics:
1) The prairie dog mating season, during which we will try to determine exactly which male(s) mates with each receptive female, and why females sometimes mate incestuously
2) Infanticide, by which males and females try to kill unweaned young
3) Marking of juveniles by litter to verify paternity
4) Communal nursing, by which females sometimes give milk to offspring of genetically related females
5) Alarm calling: Both males and females are surrounded by juvenile kin in June, but only females call. Why? Experiments with stuffed badgers will help us solve the silent-male puzzle.

(yes, that said stuffed badger)

Where do you live?
I live in a 70’s-esque trailer home in Walden, CO – Population: 612. I share our lovely mansion with 4 other researchers. The town is small indeed, and, unfortunately, littered with closed and for sale signs, but it’s quite homey and I’m sure it will be more hopping in the summer months. The second best restaurant in town might be the bowling alley, but there are two liquor stores, so what else could we really need?

I’ve run out of questions, and I’m tired of writing. For the two of you still reading – if you really just absolutely have to know more about what I do here’s a video made by a former assistant about the ins and out of prairie dog research. It’s a little hokey but it gets the job done. I promise future posts will be more interesting. At least I hope they will be. But really, watching prairie dogs is like watching a day time soap. It’ll get juicy.

Categories: Animal Behavior, Animals, Conservation, Field Research, Prairie Dogs | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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