Green Glossary: Keystone Species
A keystone species is a species "so critical to an ecosystem that its removal could potentially destroy the entire system...It is important to consider keystone species when making any decisions that could affect the natural environment. A small impact on keystone species could cause major disruption for the whole ecosystem."
Within the prairie ecosystem, the black-tailed prairie dog is a keystone species. "More than 200 other wildlife species have been observed on or near prairie dog colonies," explains PrairieDogs.org. "Some of these animals depend on prairie dogs as a food source or for their habitat. Among those animals associated with prairie dogs and their colonies are bald and golden eagles, swift foxes, coyotes, ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, badgers and black-footed ferrets. Countless insects and some plants are also associated with prairie dog towns. Countless plants and invertebrate species also rely heavily on prairie dogs and their activities."
As a keystone species, black-tailed prairie dogs impact the prairie ecosystem in multiple ways:
- Their burrows act as homes to other creatures, including burrowing owls, badgers, rabbits, black-footed ferrets, snakes, salamanders, and insects.
- Their burrowing activity works to loosen and churn up the soil, increasing its ability to sustain plant life.
- Their foraging and feeding practices enable a more nutritious, diverse and nitrogen-rich mixture of grasses and forbs (broad-leafed vegetation) to grow.
- The enriched vegetation attracts an amazing array of wildlife who graze in their colonies.
- Black-tailed prairie dogs play an integral role in the prairie food chain; they are a critical food source for such animals as the endangered black-footed ferret, swift fox, coyotes, hawks, eagles and badgers.