Jan 27, 2023
A prairie dog die-off caused by an ancient disease had big effects on plants and other animals that live in the same ecosystem, a new study found. The disease still impacts the rodents in the Western US.
Bubonic plague is an infectious disease. It killed at least 75 million people during the Middle Ages. The disease hit Wyoming’s Thunder Basin National Grassland in 2017. Black-tailed prairie dog colonies covered 25,000 acres of the Basin. The plague killed almost all of them. Only 125 acres of these colonies are left.
Their devastation and unusually high rainfall the following year changed the environment of the Basin. Predators declined. Badgers nearly disappeared. So too did the population of mountain plovers. Those are birds that thrive in the low grasses. Prairie dogs feed on the grasses and keep them short. Those grasses grew tall due to the rains.
"We found that prairie dogs play a critical role … in this system,” said Courtney Duchardt. She led the research study. Duchardt explained that the team's study shows how rain and the loss of an important species can change "wildlife communities."
The study could be the first to examine the domino effects of how the deaths of one species affect others in the same ecosystem.
Researchers say that more should be done to protect other animal populations when one species declines.
Photo by Musialine courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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