August 28, 2013 Calgary Zoo

Black-tailed prairie dog research

If you’re ever out in the wilds of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, keep an eye out for our hard-working Conservation Research team. They’re out there tagging and monitoring black-tailed prairie dogs as part of an ongoing conservation study in partnership with Parks Canada.

Using a combination of live traps and motion sensor cameras, our researchers are studying prairie dogs in order to monitor their health, population density, reproductive and hibernation patterns and understand how they are affected by different environmental conditions.

Why is prairie dog research so important?

“The data we collect is crucial in helping us to ensure a future for prairie dogs on the Canadian prairies,” says zoo researcher Tara Stephens.

And prairie dogs are the foundation of the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, so when they thrive, a multitude of other animals benefit – including those that eat them, and others that live in their abandoned burrows.

The animals are collected in live traps baited with peanut butter and oats, a mixture that prairie dogs can’t resist. After being captured they are processed, which involves microchipping and measuring them, determining their sex and reproductive status, taking samples of hair and checking for fleas which can transmit disease. The whole procedure only takes a few minutes.

“Some prairie dogs are ‘trap happy’, where they love their peanut butter so much, once the door is open they go straight back into the trap, or move right on to the next one,” says Tara.

Minimizing the stress felt by the prairie dogs during the trapping process is one of the most important considerations – and that starts with the little sunshades on the traps, put there to ensure the animals don’t get too hot for the short time they are in there.

Then, while they’re waiting to be processed, the prairie dog subjects are put into a soft, dark canvas bag. From time to time, one will cautiously open one eye when they’re taken out, promptly shutting it again when they realize they aren’t back home yet.

The Canadian prairies are the northernmost extent of the black-tailed prairie dogs’ range. These lively little animals are currently listed as a species of ‘special concern’ under Canada’s Species At Risk Act, but are listed as ‘threatened’ by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Through the research conducted by the zoo, we are striving to protect this species, and all the other animals that depend on them.

The black-tailed prairie dog component of the Husky Energy Endangered Species Program is also currently supported by the Canadian Wildlife Federation and WWF-Canada.

Conservation is a main priority for the Calgary Zoo. To learn more, check out our other conservation outreach stories.

Calgary Zoo researcher, Lacey, hauls 20 box traps to one of the sites on a prairie dog colony in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

Photo credits: Lacey Hebert & Carolyn Prentice

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