Think prairie dogs are cute, relatively harmless critters? Think again. Besides the fact that prairie dogs can spread the plague—yes, sylvatic plague—they also murder countless ground squirrels within their territory. The sole objective of this appears to be to reduce competition, and not just for themselves. A new study from researchers at the University of Maryland’s Center of Environmental Sciences found that prairie dogs will steal away into ground squirrel nests or catch young ground squirrels foraging, and viciously kill them. This, experts say, provides a number of benefits for the prairie dogs and their own young.
“In my 43 years of research, this is perhaps the most provocative, puzzling, and far-reaching discovery I’ve ever made,” study co-author John Hoogland told the National Geographic. “The results are just staggering.”
This new concept of prairie dogs as mass murderers is even more startling because unlike predators, prairie dogs are not usually violent. They are chiefly herbivorous and feed on seeds and grass. Researcher cited behavior never seen before, such as prairie dogs actively stalking ground squirrels and even setting up ambushes for them.
Just like a predator would.
“When you’re talking about lions killing hyenas, they’re trained killers. They’re doing what they do naturally on something that happens to be competing with them,” Hoogland told The Atlantic. “But prairie dogs are eating grass all the time, but then become violent killers over the course of three minutes. That’s extraordinary.”
Hoogland says he first saw a prairie dog assassinate a squirrel in 2007. Over the next five years, he and his students studied over 100 prairie dogs and found that nearly half of them have killed at least one ground squirrel. One of the animals, which the researchers named Killer Supreme, killed nine squirrels over four years. That may not sound like much, but it definitely had an effect on the prairie dog and its offspring.
Experts discovered that on average, prairie dogs who slay their competition have easier access to food and healthier lives, and the same goes for their young as well. Survival rates for the killers and their progeny are markedly higher than those who prefer peace with their neighbors.
Hoogland stresses that additional research must be done before they can write off the motive so quickly. It may be that prairie dogs turn killers only when there are a lot of ground squirrels nearby, or where their respective territories intersect the most.