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Prairie dogs take cooperation over competition

Utah prairie dog.
[Image courtesy of Elaine Miller Bond, www.elainemillerbond.com]

Why did the prairie dog cross the road? It might be because all of its close female relatives had already done so, according to a new study by John Hoogland. This researcher studied three different species of prairie dogs for more than 30 years and discovered that—unlike many other animals—prairie dogs tend to stay in the areas they are born until their close family members are gone.

Previous studies have shown that many animals move away from their kin to avoid competing for resources with similar individuals. But, these new findings show that not all species follow this particular pattern. In prairie dog communities, it is the absence of close family members rather than their presence that inspires the animals to disperse, or move away from the places they were born.

Compared to prairie dogs with at least one close family member nearby, black-tailed prairie dogs were 12.5 times more likely to disperse when their mothers and siblings were gone, he says. Gunnison's prairie dogs were also 5.5 times more likely to disperse when their close kin had vanished and Utah prairie dogs were 2.5 times more likely.

The animals probably follow this different pattern because cooperation among close relatives is more important than competition among prairie dogs, Hoogland suggests. When prairie dogs are no longer able to cooperate with close family members for resources, they may seek out new territory where cooperation is less important for survival, he says.