Extreme plasticity in thermoregulatory behaviors of free-ranging black-tailed prairie dogs

Physiol Biochem Zool. May-Jun 2006;79(3):454-67. doi: 10.1086/502816. Epub 2006 Apr 5.


In the natural environment, hibernating sciurids generally remain dormant during winter and enter numerous deep torpor bouts from the time of first immergence in fall until emergence in spring. In contrast, black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) remain active throughout winter but periodically enter short and shallow bouts of torpor. While investigating body temperature (T(b)) patterns of black-tailed prairie dogs from six separate colonies in northern Colorado, we observed one population that displayed torpor patterns resembling those commonly seen in hibernators. Five individuals in this population experienced multiple torpor bouts in immediate succession that increased in length and depth as winter progressed, whereas 16 prairie dogs in five neighboring colonies remained euthermic for the majority of winter and entered shallow bouts of torpor infrequently. Our results suggest that these differences in torpor patterns did not result from differences in the physiological indicators that we measured because the prairie dogs monitored had similar body masses and concentrations of stored lipids across seasons. Likewise, our results did not support the idea that differences in overwinter T(b) patterns between prairie dogs in colonies with differing torpor patterns resulted from genetic differences between populations; genetic analyses of prairie dog colonies revealed high genetic similarity between the populations and implied that individuals regularly disperse between colonies. Local environmental conditions probably played a role in the unusual T(b) patterns experienced by prairie dogs in the colony where hibernation-like patterns were observed; this population received significantly less rainfall than neighboring colonies during the summer growing seasons before, during, and after the year of the winter in which they hibernated. Our study provides a rare example of extreme plasticity in thermoregulatory behaviors of free-ranging prairie dogs and provides evidence contrary to models that propose a clear delineation between homeothermy, facultative torpor, and hibernation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / chemistry
  • Adipose Tissue / physiology
  • Animals
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology*
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Colorado
  • DNA / chemistry
  • DNA / genetics
  • Diet
  • Female
  • Hibernation / physiology*
  • Lipids / analysis
  • Male
  • Microsatellite Repeats / genetics
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / veterinary
  • Sciuridae / genetics
  • Sciuridae / physiology*
  • Seasons
  • Weather


  • Lipids
  • DNA