Skip to main content
ARS Home » Plains Area » Fort Collins, Colorado » Center for Agricultural Resources Research » Rangeland Resources & Systems Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #354727

Research Project: Improved Management to Balance Production and Conservation in Great Plains Rangelands

Location: Rangeland Resources & Systems Research

Title: Black-tailed prairie dog Cynomys ludovicianus (Sciuridae), metapopulation response to novel sourced conspecific signals

Author
item Connell, Lauren - University Of Wyoming
item Porensky, Lauren
item Chalfoun, Anna - University Of Wyoming
item Scasta, J. Derek - University Of Wyoming

Submitted to: Journal of Animal Behavior
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 1/2/2019
Publication Date: 3/20/2019
Citation: Connell, L., Porensky, L.M., Chalfoun, A., Scasta, J. 2019. Black-tailed prairie dog Cynomys ludovicianus (Sciuridae), metapopulation response to novel sourced conspecific signals. Journal of Animal Behavior. 150:189-199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2019.02.004.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2019.02.004

Interpretive Summary: Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) are important to the ecology of the western Great Plains because they structure habitat features critical for biodiversity. Reductions in populations and occupied range have raised concern about these burrowing rodents. In addition, prairie dogs are a highly vocal species with verbal communication that includes a unique “all clear” jump-yip call and a distinct alarm call. An experiment in the Thunder Basin of Wyoming, USA used recordings of alarm calls and jump-yip calls to better understand prairie dog communication. Alarm playbacks increased prairie dog vigilance 122% and decreased foraging 23%. Jump-yip playbacks caused unfamiliar prairie dogs to display 339% more jump-yips. The jump-yip playback did not alter recipients’ foraging or vigilance behaviours relative to control treatments, suggesting that although prairie dogs can understand and reciprocate an unfamiliar, acoustic-only jump-yip signal, they may not shift other behaviours based on this stimulus. These results improve our understanding of prairie dog communication and inform new management techniques.

Technical Abstract: Aggregation of territorial individuals within a species can be facilitated via conspecific cues, which confer benefits like habitat suitability, resource acquisition, and predator detection. The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) is a colonial small mammal with gregarious vocalizations that provide fitness benefits via group vigilance and foraging optimization. Although prairie dog alarm calls are relatively well-understood, the information embedded in their jump-yip call, which includes both a distinct cry and a bodily gesture, remains less clear. We evaluated conspecific acoustic signals and inter-colony dialect for prairie dogs using playbacks of alarm and jump-yip calls at twenty-six sites in northeast Wyoming, USA. Recorded calls from an isolated colony were broadcasted to a mean of 5 individuals per site, and behavioural responses were compared against uninfluenced behaviour and a playback of ambient sounds. The alarm playback caused prairie dogs to increase vigilance 122% and decrease foraging time 23%, demonstrating prairie dogs will shift behaviour based on signals from individuals of an unfamiliar colony. However, the alarm call playback reduced frequency of the jump-yip behaviour only at colonies nearest the recording source. The jump-yip playback caused unfamiliar prairie dogs to display 339% more jump-yips than uninfluenced behaviour. The jump-yip playback did not alter recipients’ foraging or vigilance behaviours relative to control treatments, suggesting that although prairie dogs can understand and reciprocate an unfamiliar, acoustic-only jump-yip signal, they may not shift other fitness-related behaviours based on this stimulus. As such, the purpose and benefits of the jump-yip call remain unclear. Playback efficacy also depended on distance from recording source, even within our relatively constrained study area. Our work improves understanding of how communication at the meta-population level can affect individual fitness for colonial organisms, examines the benefits of the jump-yip, and provide insights for how conspecific signals might be used as a management tool.