There’s no doubt about it: the American west was won through violence and bloodshed. We eventually tamed these feral lands, and they became the states they are today.
But unbeknownst to anyone until now, a murderous gang still roams this bloodstained soil: they’re called white-tailed prairie dogs.
The rodents have recently been observed violently killing ground squirrels. John Hoogland, of the University of Maryland Center of Environmental Sciences, says the discovery is significant because white-tailed prairie dogs are herbivores; they’re not killing the squirrels for food, but to reduce competition. Hoogland says such behavior has never been observed in mammals other than humans.
“In my 43 years of research, this is perhaps the most provocative, puzzling, and far-reaching discovery I’ve ever made,” says Hoogland. “The results are just staggering.”
Native to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana, prairie dogs generally feed on grasses and other lowland fauna. They have been known to become violent, frequently engaging in infanticide (killing of pups from a rival litter).
Infanticide, however, is not uncommon. What is uncommon is the killing of other species, infants or not. In 2007, while studying prairie dogs in Colorado, Hoogland witnessed a white-tailed prairie dog thrashing another rodent around, eventually killing it. It’s then that he discovered the rodent was in fact a ground squirrel.
Hoogland and his team of student-researchers studied white-tailed prairie dogs for the next five years, identifying 47 prairie dogs murdering squirrels. One of these little killers, which the team nicknamed “Killer Supreme”, killed nine ground squirrels over a four-year period; another killed seven in one day.
Hoogland observed prairie dog offspring living longer, healthier lives if their parents killed ground squirrels, and submits reduced competition for food as the cause.
So if you ever come across a white-tailed prairie dog, it’s probably best to resist the urge to pet it.