Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Zoo Presentation Part 1: The Black-Tailed Prairie Dog

Black-tailed prairie dog family
On Friday of this week each of the trainees has to make a second and final presentation to the rest of the class. This time we are treating it as one long guided tour of the Zoo, with a Grade Four class in tow, having already theoretically participated in a "Habitats and Human Influence" workshop. Each of us has been assigned three consecutive animals on this tour so we can show some sense of fluidity for when we have to do these tours solo. The theme we are working with is "Humans have both a positive and negative influence on animal habitats"; from there it is up to us to figure out what to say, how to tie it to the theme and how to move on to the next animal. I will be picking up our tour from immediately following the black-footed ferrets; my three creatures are the black-tailed prairie dog, the giant Pacific octopus and the spectacled owl; I will then hand it off to another trainee who will begin with the boa constrictor. Again, as in the first presentation, we are supposed to keep each animal's presentation to three minutes or under (ha!), use plenty of interaction such as questions and props, and stick as closely as possible to the broad subject of "Habitats and Adaptations (and Human Interaction)". Today I'm going to post my prairie dog presentation; tomorrow I will talk about the octopus and Thursday I'll finish with the owl. I'll copy these posts directly from my presentation notes, complete with formatting; bolded words and phrases are things I absolutely want to include; underlined and italicized means I want to ask the group a question; everything else is fair game and might be changed on the fly depending on timing. Sections in square brackets might be removed before I actually give this presentation. So, without further ado, I give you....the black-tailed Prairie dog! (Note: there are implied "pauses" after each of the questions I ask; it may look like I am just running it all together in the "script".)

Black-tailed prairie dog

Who here has moved into a new home in their life? Did you build it yourself? Most likely someone made it for you and you moved into it. Prairie dogs build homes for many other animals to live in—it’s one of their most important functions.

[Because there are no prairie dogs in the exhibit today] {ed. note: the exhibit has been "in preparation" the past two weeks; if it still is, I will use that as a jumping-off point} this is a good time to talk about the excellent signage at the Zoo. When you come back with your friends or family and don’t have a tour guide make sure you take advantage of these signs while you’re walking around the Zoo. This one is particularly great: it talks about the prairie dog and the black-footed ferret. Have a look at it now.

Excellent signage at the Zoo
The black-tailed prairie dog is what’s known as a “Keystone Species”. Does anyone know what that means? Like the keystone at the top of an arch, a Keystone Species is one which, if it were to disappear completely, it would wreak havoc on a community or even an entire ecosystem. What do you think the “niche” of the prairie dog is? Well, they have a lot of different “jobs” in their community. First of all, they provide food for many predators such as snakes, coyotes, raptors and especially the black-footed ferrets we were just talking about. When both animals were abundant in the wild, prairie dogs made up about 90% of the diet of the black-footed ferret. 

Prairie dog and bison
They also indirectly provide food for herbivores such as the wood bison (another Zoo success story). When they burrow in the grasslands of the prairies they turn and aerate the soil with their long, powerful claws, bringing richer soil to the surface and providing an opportunity for many diverse plants to grow there. They help this process along by fertilizing the soil with their own droppings and keeping the grass in check by clipping it constantly with their very large front teeth.

But to get back to my very first point: prairie dogs create homes for many other species in their extensive tunnel networks, animals such as the burrowing owl and even some of their predators, such as snakes and the black-footed ferret. The prairie dog is a very important animal indeed!

Prairie dog "town"
Thousands of them can live in one “town”, covering hundreds of hectares. These towns are divided into sections called “coteries” where a single adult male will live with 1-4 females and their young offspring. Underground, they create tunnels and many chambers for sleeping, breeding, shelter from either heat or cold and even a bathroom! When it becomes full they seal it and dig out a new one. 

At the entrances to these tunnel systems they typically leave mounds of dirt which help prevent their tunnels from flooding and provide some ventilation as well. The mounds themselves serve a third purpose: can you guess what that is? They are excellent vantage points for the prairie dogs to survey the surrounding landscape for predators. 

How do they get most of their water? Sometimes they will get it from snow but mainly they obtain their hydration from the plants they eat, which is an important adaptation for life on the dry prairies.

[They molt twice a year, wearing a light coat with no or very little underfur in the summer and a much thicker coat with warm underfur in the winter. They don’t hibernate but they do have the ability to regulate their body temperature to enter what is called a “facultative torpor”, a kind of semi-dormancy, for a few hours or days at a time in response to severe weather or a food shortage. They do not store any food but live off of their fat reserves when they are in this state.]

[Farmers and ranchers have long considered the prairie dog to be a threat to their crops and cattle and have taken some pretty drastic measures to try to wipe them out, including poisoning them and dynamiting their towns. Have you heard of Lewis and Clark? About 200 years ago, they were American explorers who traveled through the Midwest and out to the Pacific ocean. They described the prairie dog numbers as “infinite” at that time; however, their numbers dropped by 98% in the 20th C and only 1% of their natural habitat remains intact today due to human encroachment and destruction.]

Humans have had a drastically negative effect on the population of the black-tailed prairie dog through taking away its natural habitat and trying to wipe it out as a supposed pest but, recently, protected areas have been created to aid in the future survival of this species. Many other species depend on it so let’s hope we’re successful.

The next animal we’re going to see makes its home in a habitat that’s as different from being “dry” as you can possibly get!

Come back tomorrow for our next stop: the giant Pacific octopus!


  1. I was in a "facultative torpor" most of the day yesterday! ;) I hope the prairie dogs are out running around for your presentation - they are fun to watch.

    1. I am of two minds there: if they are out it will be a lot of fun, but I kind of hope to get more mileage out of that sign!


I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...