Gunnison's prairie dog

Gunnison's prairie dog
Gunnison's prairie dog
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Sciuridae
Genus: Cynomys
Species: C. gunnisoni
Binomial name
Cynomys gunnisoni
(Baird, 1855)

Gunnison's prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni) is one of five species of the prairie dog. This species belongs to the squirrel family of rodents, and are predominantly related to the North American and Eurasian ground squirrels. Gunnison’s prairie dogs are primarily distributed in the Four Corners region of the United States.


Physical description

An adult Gunnison's prairie dog

Gunnison’s prairie dogs are 12 to 14 inches (30 to 37 centimeters) in length and have a tail that measures 1.25 to 2.25 inches (3 to 6 centimeters). This breed weighs from a range of 1.5 to 2.5 lbs (0.5 to 1 kg). On average males are larger in size than females. Gunnison's prairie dogs have 22 teeth. The Gunnison's prairie dogs have 5 pairs of mammary glands.[2]

The Gunnison’s prairie dog, C. gunnisoni, is the only prairie dog species that has 40 chromosomes. The other four species of prairie dog, Black-tailed prairie dog, White-tailed prairie dog, Utah prairie dog, and Mexican prairie dog, have 50 chromosomes.[3] Their coat is yellow-toned buff merged with black colored hairs. The upper head, sides of the cheek, and eyebrows are distinctly darker than the rest of the body. The tail is mostly white with grayish-white ends and the tip of the tail is light gray.

The Gunnison’s prairie dogs go through two yearly periodic shedding during spring and fall. In spring, the shedding begins from the head to the rear tail. The process is reversed in the winter, it starts from the tail and proceeds to head.[4]

A distinguishing physical trait of the prairie dog is the placement of the eyes. The eyes are situated on the sides of their heads, giving them a wide peripheral range of sight. This allows them to spot predators more easily and react as quickly as possible. [5]


The Gunnison’s prairie dog typically feeds during the day, when they are most active.[6] Their diet usually consists grasses, herbs, and leaves.[7] During the spring they feed on newly grown shrubs. In the summer they mainly consume seeds. Food is scare in winter and fall. During these months they feed on stems and roots; and stored food, accumulated in the warmer months. While most prairie dogs are typically herbivores, some eat insects.[4]


Three-quarters of the population of Gunnison's prairie dog are located in Arizona and New Mexico.[6] The Gunnison's prairie dog can be found in high desert, grasslands, meadows, hillsides, broad alluvial valleys and floodplains. They are often found in shrubs, such as rabbitbrush, sagebrush, and saltbrush. This species of prairie dogs resides in habitats ranging from 6,000-10,000 feet in altitude, although they have been recorded at altitudes as high as 12,000 feet.[8]

The sagebrush ecosystem is dependent on these animals. As a result of the Gunnison’s prairie dogs burrowing, the soil is freshened, organic matter is added, and increased water penetration is able to occur. Their burrowing also creates habitats and exposes food sources for other living creatures.

Social structure

Gunnison’s prairie dogs live in colonies of up to several hundred individuals. Each colony is subdivided into smaller territories occupied by communal groups or solitary individuals.[9] These communities of prairie dogs vary from 2 to 19 individuals and may be composed of a single male/single female, single male/multiple females, or multiple males/multiple females.[9] Arrangement of the communities or social groups may be linked with the distribution of food resources. The territories inhabited by the Gunnison’s prairie dog are defended by social groups and violent behavior is common toward other animals who are not members. These prairie dogs often feed in feebly defended peripheral sections of territories that belong to other groups, but when members from different groups meet in these common feeding areas, conflicts can arise, with one prairie dog chasing the other back to its territory.[10]


All prairie dogs, including the Gunnison’s prairie dog are diurnal.[6] This means that they exert the most activity in the early morning and late afternoon. During warm weather the highest activity levels occur at about 9 a.m., and from 2 p.m. to about an hour before the sun sets. When the temperature starts to cool, the Gunninson’s prairie dogs become more active during the day. When it snows or rains, the prairie dogs will stay underground.

Their above ground activities include making social contact, being aware of their surroundings and predators, grooming, burrowing, etc. Their main activity above ground is feeding. Although Gunnison’s prairie dogs are considered to be less social than Black-Tailed prairie dogs, they are considered to be more social than the White-tailed prairie dogs. Studies have shown that female Gunnison's prairie dogs are far more likely to engage in friendly social contact with other prairie dogs, and males are more likely to create conflict.

With exception of two types of prairie dog, the Black-tailed and Mexican, prairie dogs hibernate. During the winter, the Gunnison's prairie dog stays underground for long periods of time without food or water, using physiological adaptations to control their metabolism. Their bodies also rely on their stored body fat during hibernation. After hibernation, they become active again around March or April. This species is most active during the months of April through October.


The Gunnison’s prairie dog communicates through forms of physical contact, such as cuddling and kissing, and through vocalization, such as a warning bark. Their vocal communication is the foundation to their survival and structure of their community. Their system of vocal communication is complex and may be one of the most advanced forms of communication of all natural animal languages.[3] Con Slobodchikoff, a Northern Arizona University biology professor, has been a researching the behavior of prairie dogs for twenty years, and states that prairie dogs “have one of the most advanced forms of natural language known to science.”

The bark is a combination of one or two high-pitched audible syllables, with the second syllable lower and deeper.[11] Prairie dogs have a unique sound to identify various predators.[12] They also have different barks for a warning signal and an “all-clear” signal. Researchers and experts have been able to classify up to eleven of the distinct warning calls that the prairie dog uses to communicate.[13] Also, females with offspring are more likely to give off a warning bark than males.

The warning signal is their primary source of survival because it alerts the other prairie dogs to nearby danger. The warning signal can last for up to thirty minutes and can be heard for nearly a mile away. As danger approaches closer, the intensity of the signal increases and ends after the prairie dog has entered into its safe haven.

Studies have also shown that prairie dogs can distinguish between the different colors of clothing that people wear, and between people expressing threatening and non-threatening behavior.

Breeding and life span

The Gunnison’s prairie dog mating season begins in mid-March and lasts until mid-May. A female Gunnison’s prairie dog is able to reproduce at the age of one year old. When food availability is scarce during the mating season, they may wait another year before breeding. Females engage in sexual intercourse for a single day during the mating season and can mate with approximately five males, depending on the population density of their habitat. Gestation lasts, on average, 30 days.[9] Females produce one litter per year of four to five pups.[14]

Once the pups are born, the mother Gunnison’s prairie dog breast-feeds for about 30 to 40 days. During this time the young pups remain safely in the nesting burrow located underground. Towards the end of lactation, the young are able to come out above ground; they must learn how to separate themselves from their mothers and survive on their own. As soon as the mother is done caring her young, she relocates herself to another burrow, leaving the now independent prairie dogs behind. Not too long after, the young scatter to other vacant burrows.[4] A high percentage of female Gunnison’s prairie Dogs settle close by their birth territory for their entire lifetime, whereas a significantly low percentage of the male Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs stay close by their birth territory for longer than one year.[9]

The life span of a Gunnison’s Prairie Dog is generally three to five years old in the wild, but they can live up to eight years of age.

The population of the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog declining drastically due to three major factors: shootings, plague cycles, and poisoning.[9] Many concerned groups of people are requesting that the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.[15]

Predators and disease

Predators of the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog include badgers, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, black-footed ferrets, weasels, golden eagles and large hawks.[6] Humans also affect prairie dog populations, for example, some ranchers implement poisoning programs to eliminate prairie dogs.

Plague (disease), caused by Yersinia pestis and transmitted via fleas, can wipe out a numerous individuals of the prairie dog populations. It is not known why prairie dogs are affected by plague.


  1. ^ Linzey, A. V. & NatureServe (Mabee, T., Cannings, S. & Hammerson, G.) (2008). Cynomys gunnisoni. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 6 January 2009.
  2. ^ "Gunnison's prairie dog". Sevilleta LTER. Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  3. ^ a b "Gunnison's Prairie Dog". Prairie Dog Coalition. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  4. ^ a b c "Cynomys gunnisoni". Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved 2008-11-17. 
  5. ^ "Gunnison's Prairie Dog". U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  6. ^ a b c d "Prairie Dogs". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2008-11-17. 
  7. ^ "Wildlife Gunnison's Prairie Dog". National Diversity Information Source. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  8. ^ "Gunnison's prairie dog". Sagebushsea. Retrieved 2008-11-18. 
  9. ^ a b c d e "Utah Gunnison's Prairie Dog and White-Tailed Prairie Dog Conservation Plan". Prairie Dog Coalition. Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  10. ^ "Gunnison's prairie dog Cynomys gunnisoni". Native Ecosystems. Retrieved 2008-11-19. [dead link]
  11. ^ "Prairie Dog Language?". John Pratt. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  12. ^ "Prairie Dogs". DesertUSA. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  13. ^ "About Prairie Dogs". City of Boulder, Colorado. Retrieved 2008-11-14. 
  14. ^ "Gunnison's and White-tailed Prairie Dogs in Trouble Says National Wildlife Federation Report". Environmental Defense Fund. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  15. ^ "Protection sought for Gunnison's prairie dog". Animal Defense League of Arizona. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 


  • “Field Guide to North American Mammals.” National Audubon Society. 6th ed. 2001

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