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: