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Earth Notes: Prairie Dog Kisses


Prairie dogs greet each other with kisses. Friends, family, sometimes even enemies get a smooch to say hello. But it’s not just an adorable quirk of these fuzzy, burrowing rodents. For prairie dogs about to be displaced from their homes by development, kisses could be the key to their survival.

Several species of prairie dogs live in the grasslands of the Colorado Plateau, often in large colonies or “towns” made up of smaller family groups. Their social lives are rich and complicated, and when they’re relocated to a new home, many do not survive. Scientists believe the survival rates might improve if social bonds are kept intact during a relocation. But it takes a long time to tease out those dynamics. Imagine studying the social undercurrents in a typical high school: there’s popular kids, cliques, occasional fights—and of course, kissing. Even in the human species, kissing is a bit of a mystery.

In prairie dogs, so-called “greet kissing” is common between mammas and babies, relatives, and friends. Wildlife biologists figured out it’s a shortcut to social dynamics. Before a relocation takes place, scientists can learn everything they need to know about the tight-woven connections between groups of prairie dogs, just by watching them kiss.

One surprising discovery is that certain prairie dogs act as liaisons between different groups—like a popular kid who attends one high school but does after-school sports at another. Biologists now wonder if keeping those networks intact, by moving whole groups without changing their geographical orientation to each other, will make relocations more successful. A test of that hypothesis is underway in Colorado.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.