Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) can surface-plug openings to a burrow occupied by a black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). At a coarse scale, surface plugs are more common in colonies of prairie dogs occupied by ferrets than in colonies without ferrets. However, little is known about spatial and temporal patterns of surface plugging in a colony occupied by ferrets. In a 452-ha colony of black-tailed prairie dogs in South Dakota, we sampled burrow openings for surface plugs and related those data to locations of ferrets observed during spotlight surveys. Of 67,574 burrow openings in the colony between June and September 2007, 3.7% were plugged. In a colony-wide grid of 80 m x 80 m cells, the occurrence of surface plugging (≤1 opening plugged) was greater in cells used by ferrets (93.3% of cells) than in cells not observably used by ferrets (70.6%). Rates of surface plugging (percentages of openings plugged) were significantly higher in cells used by ferrets (median = 3.7%) than in cells without known ferret use (median = 3.2%). Also, numbers of ferret locations in cells correlated positively with numbers of mapped surface plugs in the cells. To investigate surface plugging at finer temporal and spatial scales, we compared rates of surface plugging in 20-m-radius circle-plots centered on ferret locations and in random plots 1–4 days after observing a ferret (Jun–Oct 2007 and 2008). Rates of surface plugging were greater in ferret-plots (median = 12.0%) than in random plots (median = 0%). For prairie dogs and their associates, the implications of surface plugging could be numerous. For instance, ferrets must dig to exit or enter plugged burrows (suggesting energetic costs), and surface plugs might influence microclimates in burrows and consequently influence species that cannot excavate soil (e.g., fleas that transmit the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis).
Additional publication details
Patterns of surface plugging in a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs occupied by black-footed ferrets