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Lewis & Clark as Naturalists
The Journals Lewis and Clark as Naturalists

Black-tailed Prairie Dog

Twenty five miles above the Niobrara River, Capt. Clark recorded their first sightings of prairie dogs and described their burrows.

Capt. Clark, September 7, 1804--in decending this Cupola, discovered a Village of Small animals that burrow in the grown (those animals are Called by the french Petite Chien) Killed one and Caught one a live by poreing a great quantity of Water in his hole we attempted to dig to the beds of one of those animals, after diging 6 feet, found by running a pole down that we were not half way to his Lodge, we found 2 frogs in the hole, and Killed a Dark rattle Snake near with a Ground rat (or prairie dog) in him, (those rats are numerous) the Village of those animals Covd about 4 acres of Ground on a gradual decent of a hill and Contains great numbers of holes on the top of which those little animals Set erect and make a Whistleing noise and whin allarmed Step into their hole. we por'd into one of the holes 5 barrels of Water without filling it. Those Animals are about the Size of a Small Squ[ir]rel Shorter (or longer) & thicker, the head much resembling a Squirel in every respect, except the ears which is Shorter, his tail like a ground squirel which they shake & whistle when allarmd. the toe nails long, they have fine fur & the longer hairs is gray, it is Said that a kind of Lizard also a Snake reside with those animals.

Capt. Lewis wrote an extensive description of these animals and their behavior while the Corps camped at Travelers Rest and gathered provisions for the remainder of the trip.

Capt. Lewis, July 1, 1806--The little animal found in the plains of the Missouri which I have called the barking squirrel weights from 3 to 3-1/2 pounds. it's form is that of the squirrel. it's colour is an uniform light brick red grey, the red reather predominating. the under side of the neck and bel[l]y are light coloured than the other parts of the body. the legs are short, and it is wide across the breast and sholders in propotion to it's size, appears strongly formed in that part; the head is also bony muscular and stout, reather more blontly terminated wider and flatter than the common squirrel. the upper lip is split or divided to the nose. the ears are short and lie close to the head, having the appearance of being cut off, in this particular they resemble the guinea pig. the teeth are like those of the squirrel rat &c. they have a false jaw or pocket between the skin and the mustle of the jaw like that of the common ground squ[i]rrel but not so large in proportion to their size. they have large and full whiskers on each side of the nose, a few long hairs of the same kind on each jaw and over the eyes. the eye is small and black. they have five toes on each foot of which the two outer toes on each foot are much sho[r]ter than those in the center particularly the two inner toes of the forefeet, the toes of the fore feet are remarkably long and sharp and seem well adapted to [s]cratching or burrowing those of the hind feet are neither as long or sharp as the former; the nails are black. the hair of this animal is about as long and equally as course as that of the common gray squ[i]rrel of our country, and the hair of the tail is not longer than that of the body except immediately at the extremity where it is somewhat longer and frequently of a dark brown colour. the part of generation in the female is placed on the lower region of the belly between the hinder legs so far forward that she must lie on her back to copulate. the whole length of this animal is one foot five inches from the extremity of the nose to that of the tail of which the tail occupyes 4 inches. it is nearly double the size of the whistleing squirrel of the Columbia. it is much more quick active and fleet than it's form would indicate. these squirrels burrow in the ground in the open plains usually at a considerable distance from the water yet are never seen at any distance from their burrows. six or eight usually reside in one burrow to which there is never more than one entrance. these burrows are of great debth. I once dug and pursued a burrow to the debth of ten feet and did not reach it's greatest debth. they generally associate in large societies placing their burrows near each other and frequently occupy in this manner several hundred acres of land. when at rest above ground their position is generally erect on their hinder feet and rump; thus they will generally set and bark at you as you approach them, their note being much that of the little toy dogs, their yelps are in quick succession and at each they [give] a motion to their tails upwards. they feed on the grass and weeds within the limits of their village which they never appear to exceed on any occasion. as they are usually numerous they keep the grass and weeds within their district very closely graized and as clean as if it had been swept. the earth which they throw out of their burrows is usually formed into a conic mound around the entrance. this little animal is frequently very fat and it's flesh is not unpleasant. as soon as the hard frosts commence it shuts up it's burrow and continues untill spring. it will eat neither grain or meat.

 
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