"[J]ust above the entrance of Teapot creek on the star'd side there is a large assemblage of the burrows of the Barking Squirrel." -- Meriwether Lewis
The abundant black-tailed prairie dogs and their lives underground fascinated Lewis and Clark. Whistling from their sentry posts at the burrow mouths, the animals seemed to call to the explorers. Clark caught one by pouring water into its tunnel. Lewis dug ten feet down into a burrow but still didn't reach the bottom.
The explorers made the first scientific observations of the prairie dogs, which they called "barking squirrels." They noted the animals as they first entered South Dakota and commented on their behavior, from the warning cries that were like those of "little toy dogs" to their habit of living in small family groups within a larger colony.
Lewis was so charmed by the prairie dog that he shipped a live one to President Jefferson. The animal survived the four-month journey from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., by barge and ship, and Jefferson got to see firsthand the "barking squirrel" of the plains.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are underground architects, living in complex burrows. Rooms branch off the main corridors: Some are guard stations where prairie dogs listen for predators above; others are nurseries where mothers tend the young. Near the burrow entrances, raised mounds give the animals a platform from which to observe approaching threats; the prairie dogs keep grass around the mounds clipped short to maintain sight lines. The network of tunnels composing a colony can encompass several thousand acres.
Prairie-dog towns consist of smaller family groupings called "coteries" made up of one male, several females, and young. Individuals communicate by a complicated series of calls. Mouth-to-mouth contact that looks like kisses help prairie dogs identify members of their individual coteries.
Like bison, prairie dogs and their colonies form a biological center of prairie life. Badgers, eagles, and the endangered black-footed ferret rely on the prairie dogs as food. Burrowing owls and swift foxes both frequent abandoned tunnels. The prairie dogs' digging and grass-clipping encourage the growth of nutritious native plants that feed other animals. As many as 29 species depend on the prairie-dog towns for their survival, while another 117 benefit indirectly.