Respect the ground squirrel


Move over, red squirrel, there’s a new bad boy on the rodent block: prairie dogs.

Researchers from the University of Manitoba who have been studying the black-tailed prairie dog in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park believe they have broken an intricate form of communication practiced by these lowly beasts. And apparently the bad boys have more in common with drunken sports fans than anyone would have previously thought.

According to new research, it seems that the black-tailed prairie dog communicates by way of “The Wave.” A researcher recently described it to the Western Producer:

One animal stands on its hind legs and rears back its head, which is then mimicked, one after another, by others nearby. The motion circulates throughout the group like fans in a sports stadium waving their arms.

While researchers have long observed the furry phenomenon, they were not clear on just what the little bastards were up to. Now, though, James Hare of the U of M, an “expert in animal behaviour,” believes he’s cracked the code. Essentially, these prairie dogs are “assessing both group size and the need for vigilance.”

“Beyond just a mechanism that allows them to optimize that trade-off between forage and vigilance is that in assessing others it tells us effectively that they are able to distinguish between themselves and those other individuals,” Hare [told the Western Producer]. “They effectively have evolved to recognize that their perception of the world is distinct from that of other individuals and they are actively probing those other individuals for their perspective.”

Hare is also quick to make a case for the black-tailed prairie dog, as well as other ground squirrel species including the much maligned Richardson’s ground squirrel, as keystone species in natural prairie eco-systems. Many of these eco-systems have been damaged over the years by modern agricultural practices.

“That’s why I think some respect here is critical for the natural landscape,” Hare concluded.

So there you have it, folks. Think twice next time you’re out shooting for ground squirrels. Who knows? Maybe this newfound respect will finally lead to the reopening of Gopherville, SK? A man can dream, can’t he?

[image via Wayne Dumbleton/Flickr]

prairie dog, , Squirrelman, Squirrels