A research career begins
After earning a B.S. in Zoology from the University of Michigan in 1971, John Hoogland decided to pursue graduate studies at the same institution, going on to earn his PhD in Zoology in 1977. Between degrees, John spent two years studying bank swallows in 1972 and '73. Having developed a keen interest in the behavioral dynamics of colonial species, he eventually settled on conducting his graduate research on a colonial mammal.
A 2017 article about John's research in Scientia does a great job describing his nascent years in prairie dog research:
When John Hoogland first visited a prairie dog colony as a young graduate student, he said aloud to himself, "I could study these animals for the next 10 years." Forty-four years later, John is still studying prairie dogs, and he still marvels about the sometimes bizarre, often provocative, and always fascinating lives of his favourite animals. He is the undisputed world’s expert on these remarkable social rodents.
In April 1974, while working on a PhD at the University of Michigan, John found himself in a devastating situation for a young graduate student. While attempting to study colony dynamics of Wyoming ground squirrels, he discovered that, contrary to popular belief at the time, Wyoming ground squirrels do not actually live in discrete colonies. One night John broke down and sobbed to his new bride (Judy) about his calamity. Judy instantly responded, "Why not study prairie dogs? Everybody knows that prairie dogs live in colonies." John listened, and visited a colony of prairie dogs the next day. Within a few minutes of his arrival, John was mesmerised by the nonstop vocalisations, and by the chases, fights, and kisses that he was seeing everywhere.
John quickly developed the simple protocol of "Catch ’em. Mark ’em. Watch ’em." He and his students – usually 4–5 per year, with a grand total over 200 – took this protocol to a new level over the next 44 years: an inconceivable >200,000 man-hours of research with four different species of prairie dogs under natural conditions at national parks in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah.
A long-term study develops
When John began researching prairie dogs as a PhD student, he immediately fell in love with them. Recognizing early on that prairie dogs might exhibit species-specific nuances, John made it a mission to study as many species as possible. Before he knew it, his long-term study had taken him through 44 years of annual research across the western United States, through cold, wind, heat, extreme sun, and all the challenges and beauties of grassland habitats. Because studying prairie dog behavior requires that you basically live with the prairie dogs for four to five months out of the year, John and his research assistants immersed themselves into the landscapes and lives of these charismatic animals in a way that has been entirely unique in the field of prairie dog research, enabling John to draw a complete behavioral picture of the prairie dog that has been invaluable to scientific discipline, grassland conservation, and the protection of the prairie dogs themselves.
A timeline of John's research follows:
- From 1974-1976, he studied white-tailed prairie dogs and black-tailed prairie dogs in Wyoming, Colorado, and South Dakota, for his doctoral research.
- From 1977-1988, he concentrated on black-tailed prairie dogs at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
- From 1989-1995, he shifted his focus to Gunnison's prairie dogs at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
- From 1996-2005, he moved to yet another species, researching Utah prairie dogs at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.
- From 2006-2012, he furthered his work on white-tailed prairie dogs, this time at the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado.
- Presently, and since 2013, he has returned to researching Gunnison's prairie dogs, now at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico.
John has never lost his passion for his work, and every year brings new perspectives that add to his story. Driving together to the colony in the mornings, John’s squad hears stories from thirty years ago alongside stories from the summer before, providing a picture of successes and frustrations, trials and errors, and singular discoveries from decades of behavioral observations. John the PhD student of 1974 could not possibly have imagined the career that lay ahead of him, the well-respected knowledge he would accumulate, the publications and books he would write and contribute to, the television, radio, and magazine features of his work and findings, the academic positions that would eventually take him to the University of Maryland Appalachian Laboratory (where he has worked and received support for 20 years), and the many awards recognizing him for his dedication, knowledge, and contributions to conservation.
He began with a seemingly simple but truthfully complex question:
"WHY DO PRAIRIE DOGS LIVE IN COLONIES?"
The answers to that question, both proximate and ultimate, continue to drive John four decades later, as both advantages and disadvantages to colonial living manifest in different ways among the species, and even among colonies, wards, and individuals. It has taken all these decades for John to simultaneously describe differences among species while just as importantly deriving a common behavioral template from which all prairie dogs draw as burrowing, herbivorous, colonial rodents in North American grasslands. To accomplish this, John has backboned his research with a consistency in methodology - so that by treating every study colony the same and making no assumptions, he has been able to compare and contrast them over the years.