MIXED NEWS FROM REDONDO MEADOW, where Mariana has just completed several days of surveying and capturing our post-plague prairie dogs to mark them after their last molt. The vegetation has grown exceptionally tall, which we expected with so few prairie dogs foraging the grasses and shrubs. In the picture above, the tall flowering stalks are a species of plant called mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Some of these mullein have grown up to five feet. This species of plant is invasive in the United States, and prairie dog foraging and tilling has kept the mullein from overgrowing at our research site in the past. This year, however, the plant has overwhelmed the meadow.
Other grasses and shrubs have also overgrown, making the prairie dogs themselves hard to see. This not only makes finding and trapping them difficult, but it makes vigilance for the prairie dogs themselves difficult as well. While on one hand the prairie dogs might appear harder to find for predators, that perceived benefit is negated by the decreased visibility for the prairie dogs themselves. And on top of the poor visibility, there are so few individuals at the site that those still alive are hypervigilant and skittish. With fewer clan members to sound alarms and keep watch, the overall sense of danger is heightened.
And the danger is very real. During the hiatus between early July (when we captured new juveniles) and early September, we lost five out of twelve individuals in our post-plague clan. It is impossible to say with certainty what happened to the missing prairie dogs, but at this time we feel they probably fell victim to predation rather than the possibility that they dispersed. You may recall from a previous blog post (July 10) that two mothers (RAB and Head) were rearing juveniles in the summer. RAB had three, and Head had seven. Now in September, the remaining prairie dogs include RAB and her three offspring, but only three of Head's offspring, with no sign of Head or her four other juveniles. The remaining prairie dogs have all been marked and will be identifiable when they emerge from hibernation next March. That is, if they survive the harsh winter conditions. It is hard to say at this point how few of the already-few will be alive next year, but we remain hopeful.