Monday, September 25, 2006

Prairie Dogs Prove It: Love REALLY Is A Battlefield

Love is a risky business, just ask the Utah prairie dog. A recently reported, new study of the cute-looking critters reveals that males pay a high price for pursuing females during the species' brief, 17-day long breeding season each year. The prairie dog is hunted by a range of predators, including foxes, badgers, eagles, goshawks and coyotes. As a result the endangered creatures spend their lives conducting a high-risk game of hide and seek with their pursuers. The survey of a 200-strong colony of praire dogs in Bryce Canyon National Park suggests their hunters may hold the upper hand. Predation rates soared during the breeding season, with ten male prairie dogs falling victim to foxes or goshawks, far more than during the rest of the year. Scientists think this suggests the predators know the male prairie dogs will show themselves out in the open more during this period, possibly to impress females with their macho behaviour. They have learned to lie in wait, then capitalise. The study is being seen as a significant breakthrough in proving how animals carefully select their hunting grounds. "This is by far the best documentation and quantification of selective predation," says Jerry Wolff, a behavioral ecologist at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. The study was carried out by behavioral ecologist John Hoogland of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Frostburg and will be reported in next month's American Naturalist.

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