Thursday, November 20, 2008

Black-tailed Prairie Dog

Black-tailed Prairie Dog
Cynomys ludovicianus
misunderstood being of the prairie
12" x 7" x 8"
mixed media hand sewn and beaded painted leather jointed figure seated on wooden chair.

A member of the Rodentia order, the Black-tailed Prairie Dog is a large burrowing ground squirrel. Its habitat for thousands of years has been the Great Plains of North America. Misunderstood from its initial encounter with pale faces in 1742, when Louis and Francois Verendrye, French explorers, called them petit chien ( little dog ), the Black-tailed Prairie Dog's fate rests in our hands.

What was once the largest prairie ecosystem in the world, the Great Plains spanned from southern Saskatchawan, Canada, across Montana, North Dakota, southward through New Mexico and Texas into northern Mexico. These vast uninterrupted grasslands provided habitat for herds of migrating bison and pronghorn antelope. Amongst these herds on this short grass prairie and in semi-desert country, the Black-tailed Prairie Dog did dwell. Pronghorn antelope grazed on weeds amongst the mounds and bison found respite within the dust wallows. Within the colony of multi-chambered burrows just beneath the surface of the earth, other denizens of the prairie coexisted and depended on the Prairie Dog for their survival. Rabbits. Rattlesnakes. Lizards. Burrowing Owls, as well as other birds. Insects. Toads. Salamanders. Spiders. Badgers. Swift fox. The endangered Black-footed Ferret. Just to name a few of the species.

From historic accounts written in the nineteenth century estimates of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog population reached five billion. One particular colony in Texas contained 400 million inhabitants and covered 25,000 square miles it was calculated. A head count of Black-tailed Prairie Dog today would be a number less than 2% of these historic figures. Their status is locally common in some areas though have been extirpated from eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

Black-tailed Prairie Dgs are herbivores, eating an occasional insect. Life span in the wild is about four years. Females produce one litter in the springtime with usually four to five pups in a litter. An adult's weight will average between one and one half to three pounds and are between thirteen and seventeen inches long. They do not hibernate but remain dormant deep within their burrows in a nest during the harshest days of winter. Black-tailed Prairie Dogs molt twice a year. In the spring, molt begins at the head working its way to the tail. In the fall, the molt works in reverse from the tail to the head. And the tail only molts once, in the summer, when the spring molt is completed.

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are highly social animals that prefer to live in large colonies. They dig elaborate burrows with entrances angled to catch cooling summer breezes. Mounds built just outside of these burrow entrances act as vantage points to keep a watchful eye on predators.

Predators of the Black-tailed Prairie Dg are coyote, bobcats, hawks, and golden eagles. Add to that list humans. In particular farmers and ranchers, predators also of the Great Plains ecosystem. Human persecution through government funded poisoning, mindless shooting, urbanization, and the conversion of habitat to cropland and feedlots for cattle has taken a toll on a healthy Black-tailed Prairie Dog population and other species that depend on them.

Sylvatic plague caused by a bacterium ( Yersinia pestis ) brought to North and South America in the late nineteenth century made its way to the Plains on the backs of animals carrying the diseased fleas. This plague is deadly to Black-tailed Prairie Dogs and to its endangered predator the Black-footed Ferret.

Please become knowledgeable about and respect our brethren of the Great Plains who's existence is so important to a healthy ecosystem. Please do not let happen to this species what happened to the Thylacine of Tasmania and Passenger Pigeon of North America due to human ignorance.

I created my interpretation of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog during an artist residency at the Johnson County Central Resource Library in Overland Park, Kansas in 2007. I sewed and beaded every day in a setting where patrons could watch and ask questions. I am working on an ongoing series of endangered and extinct beings from around the world. Researching the plight and story of the species chosen and then interpreting an image with leather, beads and other materials and then writing a message. For this month long residency I chose to work on species from the state of Kansas that are having a hard time. The Black-tailed Prairie Dog and its predator the Black-footed Ferret.

My Black-tailed Prairie Dog now abides at the Johnson County Central Resource Library and is a part of their art collection. Young readers can visit him and learn about his message. ( older readers are welcome to visit him also)

1 comment:

coloredsock said...

i love him, Kelly! Oso calls prairie dogs, 'squeakers'. or we do. i have to check, but i'm pretty certain there is a couple acres in the town of taos (next to my friend) where it is a wildlife preserve for these same prairie dogs...i remember her telling me about the rarity of these ones. i love how you interpretted their spirit. so compassionate and sensitive. thanks for sharing the history, too!