January 4, 2019

The Prairie Dog Paradox

Now Retired from Field Research, Dr. John Hoogland is Ready to Unlock the Mysteries of the West’s Most Loved—and Misunderstood—Rodents

To some people, prairie dogs are adorable denizens of vacant lots and wild grasslands. To others, they’re akin to country rats.

To Denver Zoo Research Associate Dr. John Hoogland, prairie dogs are a life’s work. He has dedicated the last 45 years (again, 45 YEARS!) of his life trying to understand what makes them tick and the critical a role they play in the world around them.

As stewards of research and conservation, Denver Zoo has contributed significant support to Dr. Hoogland’s research. In the last five years alone, more than 21 staff members have participated in annual field studies, and it hasn’t only been scientists and zookeepers. Staff from a range of departments—HR, Learning Engagement and even Security—all took turns volunteering long hours logging meticulous prairie dog data, putting in more than 1,000 hours in total since 2013!

And volunteering for this kind of research study was no easy task. Each volunteer trip required a six-hour drive to get to the New Mexico site, followed by a week of eight- to 14-hour days sitting alone in remote blinds or observation towers—without heat, AC, plumbing, or facilities. There were no creature comforts for this creature study.

Even so, volunteers are grateful for their experience.

“Being a part of the prairie dog squad was a crazy, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget,” said Communications Coordinator Kim Holliday, who recently volunteered for the project. “I had a blast observing and recording the behaviors of these amusing little critters. I quickly found myself rooting for my favorite dogs!”

Guest Engagement Coordinator Maureen Walsh also volunteered for the study, and came away with a new appreciation for both prairie dogs and the opportunity to share her experience.

“The importance of supporting work with local species like the prairie dog is something that I’m proud the Zoo is involved in. I had the opportunity to share Denver Zoo’s involvement with people upon my return, which was a very cool experience,” she said.

With the world’s most comprehensive set of information on prairie dogs in hand, Dr. Hoogland is retiring his field studies to begin analyzing his results, which may go a long way towards helping us better understand our wild neighbors. It’s entirely possible he’ll unlock secrets to some of the natural world’s most puzzling behaviors, such as infanticide, polyandry and alarm calling, all of which prairie dogs display. And by spending nearly half a century witnessing colonies cope with threats like plague, drought and infrastructure development, we may have a better sense of what conditions these critters need to survive over the long term.

Love them or hate them, prairie dogs play a critical role in ecosystems of the West, and Dr. Hoogland’s efforts put us on the brink of knowing significantly more about their impact. Who knew so much was riding on a little rodent?

The answer: Dr. Hoogland.

Learn more about the Zoo's field conservation programs and what you can do to help.

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