October 17, 2018 Calgary Zoo

Prairie Dogs and Peanut Butter with Tara Stephens

How has working with black-tailed prairie dogs in Grasslands National Park changed our population ecologist, Tara Stephens? Well, for one thing, she can’t eat peanut butter anymore!

Live-trapping is required in order to study social squirrels, like prairie dogs, and peanut butter is used to bait these traps. After their sticky snack, the prairie dog then fills the trap with some peanutty poops. This leaves the researchers with the job to clean the poop-nut butter mess, making the smell of peanuts less than appetizing for Tara.

Prairie dogs haven’t just changed Tara’s diet, they have also altered her approach to conservation. The Calgary Zoo, in collaboration with Parks Canada, began researching prairie dogs population dynamics as a way of supporting the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets in Canada, which feeds primarily on prairie dogs and use their burrows for shelter. As Tara learned more about the role of prairie dogs in Grasslands National Park and threats to their persistence, she has come to realize that an ecosystem approach is necessary to restore this delicate predator-prey relationship.

Not only are black-tailed prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets at risk, but they also live in one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world, grasslands! Prairie dogs have an important role in grasslands, being prey for many carnivores, providing burrows for other species at risk like burrowing owls, and improving grass growth for other grazers, like bison and cattle.

For Tara, this has made her outlook on the project go from a focus on ferrets, to prairie dogs, to the entire grasslands ecosystem.

October is Squirrel Awareness Month, a time to recognize this ecologically important family of rodents that includes the black-tailed prairie dog. Come visit our own prairie dog colony in Canadian Wilds before they hunker down for their winter sleep!

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