Who’s been kissing who? Prairie dog ‘greet kisses’ reveal complex social networks

Credit: Jennifer Verdolin

Prairie dogs—those chubby little hiding rodents found in the grasslands across the central and western United States—may not have Tik Tok or Instagram but they do have complex social networks. Understanding their surprisingly complex connections, interactions, and worlds can help wildlife conservationists more successfully re-colonize and reintroduce species into the wild, says a new study by behavioral ecologist Jennifer Verdolin, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Arizona.

Assistant Professor of Conservation Biology in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Verdolin has been studying prairie dogs for nearly two decades.

“They’re underpowered,” Verdolin said. “Everything eats them up, but they’re very strong and committed.” “People look at them like they’re just a big rat, but they have a unique language; they have dialects. They cooperate and they have cultural differences between the colonies.”

Crowded in the prairies around Flagstaff, Arizona, Verdolin watched colonies of prairie dogs outrun predators, learned complex speech patterns, and observed thousands of “hello kisses”—that’s right, prairie dogs are great at cuddling.

“They greet each other with a kiss, and the individuals who kiss each other and do not fight afterwards belong to the same social group and territory,” Verdolin said. “All you have to do is watch. The more kisses, the stronger the connection.”

Much like primate grooming behavior, prairie dog “kisses” reveal complex social networks. Verdolin noticed 80 prairie dogs, spread over 14 social networks. Unlike other animals, prairie dogs do not have a hierarchical social structure. In other words, there is no upper (meadow) dog.

“This actually goes against most of the prairie dog literature, which says there is one male and one female harem,” Verdolin said. “That’s simply not what we’re seeing.” “Most social groups consist of several males and females. Everyone accepts everyone, and children are the result of all this activity.”

But, according to Verdolin, not everyone is kissed equal. There are societal bridges – those that accept members of neighboring social groups, and there are hubs – those that seem to get all the kisses.

All of those prairie dog kisses helped define the intricacies of their social dynamics—from the number of friends a particular prairie dog had, known as “degree centrism” in the parlance of social network analysis, to the number of connections an individual prairie dog facilitated, also known as “in-between centricity.”

Social network analyzes like this one have been used in environmental studies for a little over a decade and help ecologists understand how and when species tend to their community. Predators, environmental conditions, and food availability contribute to the ebb and flow of social interactions.

Recently, there have been a number of studies across wildlife species looking at how resource availability shapes social group dynamics. For example, killer whales become more lumpy and tight-knit when salmon is more abundant. A similar pattern has been observed in giraffes, where entire webs gather together during the rainy season – again, when food is more readily available.

Verdolin explained that when resources influence social behavior, most wildlife systems are thought to be a fusion fission, meaning that a group might split to feed when resources are scanty and then come back together when they are abundant. Gunnison prairie dogs – the type that Verdolin focused on in this study published in the journal behavior— It’s a little different.

“Here, we basically have a species that maintains territory year-round, maintains a social group year-round, and the amount of food available will change the way they interact with each other, the strength of those interactions and the frequency of those interactions,” Verdolin said.

The subtle complexities of these social connections have major implications for conservation efforts. While having sufficient resources to support a colony is important, it is not the only factor that supports survival. How animals react, particularly in high-stress situations, changes everything from how disease is transmitted through a population to how information is transmitted or cultural learning may occur in a social group.

“This is huge because behavior is not usually integrated into managing prairie dog conservation, recovery and transportation,” Verdolin said. “If you want to reintroduce it or move it from place to place, you can’t just collect it and put it in a landscape because you decided it’s appropriate.”

Oftentimes, prairie dog transfers occur when colonies get in the way of new construction or when they are considered disruptive to a landscape, such as a golf course. Verdolin said the success of most reintroduction efforts is too low, which has cascading consequences for the more than 100 species that benefit from the presence of prairie dogs.

“With some species, such as prairie dogs, it is important to consider all the factors that support their survival – not only food abundance, but also the size of the group and the spatial orientation of its members and how this affects social interactions,” Verdolin said. “And it is important to try to match these elements as closely as possible when doing the resettlement of social groups or social species.”

Prairie dogs found to kill rival squirrels

more information:
Ferenc Jordan et al, Availability of resources influences global social network properties in Gunnison prairie dogs (Cynomys gunnisoni), behavior (2021). DOI: 10.1163 / 1568539X-bja10118

Presented by the University of Arizona

the quote: Who was accepting whom? The prairie dog reveals complex social networks (2021, October 15) Retrieved November 30, 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-10-prairie-dog-reveal-complex-social.html

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