Social networking for prairie dogs is not exactly what it sounds like. Prairie dogs are not jumping onto Facebook or twitter to connect with friends and families in other areas of the country. These social networks are groups of the animals within a colony, and how they interact with each other.
Researchers from North Carolina State University have recently discovered relationship tendencies that differ from those previously observed using traditional observational techniques. This new discovery was made using statistical tools to map the social connections of the furry critters. The data collected may provide information about the communities within colonies of prairie dogs that could help limit the spread of diseases like plague through fleas and assist with conservation efforts in the future.
Animal behavior researcher at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), Dr. Jennifer Verdolin is the lead author of this study. According to Verdolin, prairie dog populations are on the decline and the animals are subject to plague. By using the study to understand prairie dog social dynamics, Verdolin believes that the information could assist in slowing down and mitigating the spread of the plague.
According to Verdolin, understanding the prairie dogs social networks could also less disruption to the animals if a colony has to be relocated, by keeping the smaller groups of networked animals together. By limiting disruptions to the smaller social groups, the idea is that a relocation of the animals would not disturb the critters to the point that they do not accept their new homes.
Data for the research was collected by Verdolin from Gunnison prairie dog colonies in Arizona. Using statistical tools developed by co-author of the paper, Amanda Traud using social network theory to analyze data collected from three different colonies for the period of one year. The focus of study was specifically how the prairie dogs locked their teeth together in what appears to look like to human’s kissing. Labeled great kissing, the researchers were able to discover what animals were part of the same network inside the colony and which animals were not in the social network.
Great kissing is believed to be a sort of greeting between the animals which the researchers collected the most data from and were able to determine the animals groupings. After the prairie dogs part after the moment of great kissing, if they are in the same social network, casual observers would believe the two animals are just kissing. However, if it is a prairie dog from outside of the social network, the pair would scuffle with each other until one would chase the other off. These actions gave Verdolin and Traud the data needed to formulate an idea behind the social network and determine what prairie dogs should be grouped together for a potential relocation.
The idea behind using the data to help prevent the spread of plague and other diseases was discovered by a bridge individual in the different social networks of the colonies. A prairie dog considered the bridge was an animal that moved from its specific network to other networks within the colony. According to Verdolin, in the case one of the social networks is infected with the plague, by locating the bridge animals for each of the networks is the key move. Relocating the bridge critter away from the colony, the plague or other diseases could be slowed down as the interaction between the social networks within the colony would have less contact with each other. The slow down could allow infected members of the colony to be removed without fear of losing the entire population.
The ability to isolate the prairie dog social networks, Verdolin and the research group hope to preserve the prairie dog populations from declining to dangerous levels while reducing the spread of plague. While the study focused on the Arizona prairie dogs, residents of Colorado should take notice with the recent four confirmed cases of pneumonic plague in the state believed to have come from an infected colony northeast of Denver.
By Carl Auer