As It Happens

Cute, grass-eating prairie dogs are actually baby squirrel-killers

Scientists had never seen wild, plant-eating mammals kill other species before. Now they've witnessed prairie dogs shaking infant ground squirrels to death dozens of times. And they're still not sure why they do it.
A Prairie Dog and its prey / John Hoogland (John Hoogland / Zeke Estrada, Edgewood Picture Company)

Prairie dogs might seem cuddly and harmless. But, in truth, they are cold-hearted killers.

Biologist John Hoogland has been observing the grass-eating prairie dogs for more than four decades. For most of his career, he'd never seen them attack another species of animal. Then, for the first time ever, he saw a one savagely kill a baby ground squirrel.

A prairie dog takes a bite out of its ground squirrel prey at The Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. (John Hoogland)

Since then, Hoogland has seen that pattern of behaviour more frequently. And he's also discovered that prairie dogs who kill, and their offspring, are healthier from an evolutionary perspective.

"I was in total amazement to find that killer female prairie dogs have higher fitness than those that do not kill."

A view of the Valles Caldera National Preserve (National Park Service)

Hoogland tells As It Happens host Carol Off -- from his observation tower at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico -- that he still isn't clear on why the prairie dogs he's observed are behaving so violently. But he says will continue studying them.

"I get as excited now as I was 43 years ago, when I started," says Hoogland. "The more I love them, the less I know."

Biologist John Hoogland of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science (Zeke Estrada, Edgewood Picture Company)

The new study on the prairie dogs is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

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