Underground Engineering

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Science  27 Feb 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5918, pp. 1148
DOI: 10.1126/science.323.5918.1148d

Prairie dogs are keystone species (meaning that many taxa are affected by their presence) and also ecosystem engineers (that is, they sculpt the physical aspects of their environment). Prairie dog colonies crop nonwoody vegetation, disturb soil surfaces, and dig extensive networks of burrows. To determine how these activities affect the local biota, VanNimwegen et al. censused rodents and measured vegetation structure either directly on black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colonies at the Cimarron National Grassland or at sites roughly 1 km distant. The authors plotted separate ordinations of rodent counts and vegetation variables using nonmetric multidimensional scaling. They examined the effects of three categorical variables: colony (on or off), cover (shortgrass or sandsage), and habitat (factorial combination of colony and cover). Rodent communities differed in response to prairie dog colonies regardless of the cover, and the effect of colonies was not diminished by the uniform vegetation structure in the shortgrass prairie. These patterns indicate that the prairie dogs' cropping of vegetation has at most a minor effect on the rodent community structure; their impact is achieved through soil disturbance and burrowing. — SJS

Ecology 89, 3298 (2008).

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