The food chain is defined as the progression of species of plants and animals that lead from the most basic food stuff to the higher levels of animals. The prairie dog is not actually a dog but a ground squirrel native to the prairie grasslands of the American West. Early explorers and traders gave the animals the “dog” name based on the barking sound the animals make when startled. Prairie dogs live in large colonies sometimes known as “prairie dog towns.”
Food Chain for Prairie Dogs
Plants -> Prairie dogs -> Predators (foxes, coyotes, hawks, etc) -> Top predators (eagles, coyotes) -> Decomposers
- Primary producers: Prairie dogs are herbivores, so plants like grasses, seeds, roots, and sometimes fruits/berries make up the base of their food chain. Photosynthesis by plants converts sunlight into chemical energy.
- Primary consumers: Prairie dogs eat the plants, taking in the stored chemical energy. As herbivores, they are primary consumers.
- Secondary consumers: Animals that prey on prairie dogs include coyotes, foxes, hawks, eagles, badgers, and rattlesnakes. These carnivores and omnivores are secondary consumers, eating the prairie dogs and obtaining energy from them.
- Tertiary consumers: Hawks, eagles, coyotes, and other predators that eat other predators of prairie dogs are the tertiary consumers. An example is a coyote eating a fox that has preyed on prairie dogs.
- Decomposers: Bacteria and fungi break down waste and dead material from all levels of the food chain, returning nutrients to the soil and closing the loop.
Prairie Dog Diet
Prairie dogs graze on grasses during the summer months. According to the website bio.davidson.edu, the prairie dogs are selective in the grasses they consume and will ignore weeds and coarser grasses. During the winter, they eat grass roots from within their burrows and prickly pear cactus.
What Eats Prairie Dogs
The list of species that consume prairie dogs is lengthy. They are favored prey of badgers, golden eagles, falcons, coyotes and snakes. By definition this means prairie dogs can be pursued underground in their burrows by snakes, from the air by hawks and eagles and on the ground by bobcats, badgers and coyotes.
The Food Chain
The food chain involving the prairie dog is grass eaten by the prairie dog which is eaten in turn by the predator. The food chain can be extended if the prairie dog is consumed by a snake which is then a prey species for the golden eagle.
Importance of Prairie Dogs
According to the Davidson College website, the prairie dog is considered by some biologists a keystone species in the food chain. This means the prairie dog has an important part in the food chain. It serves as the species that converts plant matter into flesh which is consumed by a number of carnivorous species.
Prairie Dog Populations
Prairie dogs reside in large colonies of burrows that can cover many acres of land. The only controlling factor to the prairie dog population is the predator population. In areas where predators have been eliminated by hunting or other factors the population of prairie dogs can explode. Hunting by humans is done as varmint control or for sport rather than for consumption.
Keith Allen, a 1979 graduate of Valley City State College, has worked at a variety of jobs including computer operator, medical clinic manager, radio talk show host and potato sorter. For over five years he has worked as a newspaper reporter and historic researcher. His works have appeared in regional newspapers in North Dakota and in "North Dakota Horizons" and "Cowboys and Indians" magazines.