By Rosemary Brandt, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
October 14, 2021
Prairie dogs — those chubby little burrowing rodents found in the prairies of the central and western United States — may not have TikTok or Instagram, but they do have complex social networks. Understanding their connections, interactions and surprisingly complex world could help wildlife advocates more successfully relocate and reintroduce species into the wild, says a researcher. new study by University of Arizona behavioral ecologist Jennifer Verdolin.
Assistant Professor of Conservation Biology at School of Natural Resources and EnvironmentVerdolin has been studying prairie dogs for nearly two decades.
“They’re such underdogs. Everything eats them up, but they’re so tough and observant,” Verdolin said. “People look at them like they’re just this big rat, but they have a unique language, they have dialects. They collaborate and have cultural differences between colonies.”
Huddled in the prairies surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona, Verdolin watched colonies of prairie dogs outwit predators, learned their complex language patterns, and witnessed thousands of “welcome kisses”—that’s right, prairie dogs are lovers of kissing.
“They greet each other with a kiss, and individuals who kiss and then don’t fight belong to the same social group and territory,” Verdolin said. “All you have to do is watch. The longer they kissed, the stronger the connection.”
Like grooming behavior in primates, prairie dog “welcome kisses” reveal complex social networks. Verdolin observed 80 prairie dogs, covering 14 social networks. Unlike other animals, prairie dogs do not have a hierarchical social structure. In other words, there is no better (prairie) dog.
“It actually goes against most of the prairie dog literature, which says there’s a single male and a harem of females. That’s just not what we see,” said said Verdolin. “Most social groups are made up of multiple males and multiple females. Everyone kisses everyone, and babies are the result of all that activity.”
But, according to Verdolin, not everyone gets kissed the same way. There are community bridges – those that kiss members of neighboring social groups, and there are hubs – those that seem to get all the kisses.
All of these prairie dog kisses helped Verdolin map the intricacies of their social dynamics – from the number of friends a particular prairie dog had, known as the “degree of centrality” in the parlance of social networks, to the number of connections facilitated by an individual prairie dog, otherwise known as “centrality between the two.”
Social network analyzes like this have been used in ecological studies for just over a decade and help ecologists understand how and when a species relies on its community. Predators, environmental conditions, and food availability all contribute to the ebb and flow of social interactions.
Recently, there have been a number of wildlife studies that have investigated how resource availability shapes social group dynamics. Killer whales, for example, become more grouped and connected when salmon are more abundant. A similar pattern has been seen in giraffes, with entire webs coming together during the rainy season – again, a time when food is more readily available.
Where resources impact social behavior, most wildlife systems are thought to be fission-fusion, meaning that a group may split up for food when resources are scarce and then reunite when they are scarce. are abundant, explained Verdolin. Gunnison’s prairie dogs — the species Verdolin focused on for this study, published in the journal Behavior — are a bit different.
“Here we basically have a species that maintains a territory year-round, maintains a social group year-round, and the amount of food available will change how they interact with each other, the strength of those interactions, and the frequency of these interactions,” Verdolin said.
The intricacies of these social engagements have great implications for conservation efforts. While it’s important to have enough resources to sustain a colony, it’s not the only factor that underpins survival. How animals interact, especially in high-stress situations, changes everything from how disease spreads in a population to how information is transferred or cultural learning can occur in a group. social.
“It’s huge because the behavior is generally not integrated into prairie dog conservation management, restoration and movement,” Verdolin said. “If you’re going to reintroduce them or move them from place to place, you can’t just pick them up and plant them in a landscape because you’ve decided it’s appropriate.”
Oftentimes, prairie dog movements occur when colonies obstruct new construction or when they are considered destructive to a landscape, such as a golf course. The success of most relocation efforts is very low, which has cascading consequences for the more than 100 species that benefit from the presence of prairie dogs, Verdolin said.
“With some species, like prairie dogs, it’s important to consider all of the factors that favor their survival – not just the abundance of food, but also the size of the group, the spatial orientation of its members, and how it influences social interactions,” Verdolin said. noted. “And it’s important to try to match those elements as much as possible when relocating social groups or social species.”