Extreme makeover for dwindling prairie dog

STONY BROOK (US)—Maligned as vermin, poisoned, and shot to the point of near-extinction, the prairie dog is an ecologically important animal that, according to a new book, needs saving—fast.

Stony Brook University researcher Jennifer Verdolin issues a call to action on behalf of prairie dogs, the burrowing rodents once considered the scourge of the American West, in Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society.

“Prairie dogs are so important ecologically and it is alarming how little protection they are afforded,” Verdolin says. “It is our hope that this book will educate and motivate large numbers of people to press for prairie dog conservation.”

Verdolin, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stony Brook, coauthored the book with Con Slobodchikoff, a professor of biology at Northern Arizona University, and Bianca S. Perla, who has a doctorate in ecology from the University of Washington.

For more than a century, the book claims, prairie dogs have been targets of a government-sponsored extermination campaign, one so successful that the animals are now reduced to about 1 percent of the range they occupied in 1900.

“Ranchers erroneously claim that prairie dogs eat all the grass, so they poison them, mostly on public federal lands, often paid for by U.S. taxpayers,” says Verdolin. “Recreational shooters kill them indiscriminately for target practice. Developers usually just bulldoze over and bury alive entire colonies.”

The book makes a strong case for prairie dog conservation, setting forth fascinating characteristics of the highly social grasslands rodent. For instance, prairie dogs use the most sophisticated natural animal language that has yet been decoded, more complex than the languages used by chimps, dolphins, and whales. Research has shown that prairie dog calls can incorporate information about the size, shape, and color of a predator.

“This book urges scientists, policymakers, and the rest of us to prevent the collapse of dwindling prairie dog ecosystems and imbeds prairie dog imperilment in the broader global extinction crisis.” says Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director of WildEarth Guardians. “[The authors] blend science with conscience, giving us a well-researched glimpse into the varied and fascinating world we risk losing if we don’t alter course.”

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