Dramatic Caturday

By Phil Plait | June 18, 2011 7:00 am

Last week, I showed you a turtle doing his thing while I was out biking — providing "his thing" means falling face-first off a log.

Not too long after that, a ways farther down the trail, I had an encounter with a much cuter critter.

That’s a prairie dog, and they’re very common around Boulder. They are about as adorable as you can imagine, even in the way they behave. They stand on their hind legs, chitter loudly, and run around like they’re starring in a Pixar cartoon.

On the other hand, they also are known to carry the plague. And by the plague, I mean the plague, Bubonic Plague. That’s one reason I try not to get too close to them. I watched "Holy Grail"; I know the score.

Colonies of them can have dozens of members, and watching them prance around and run from hole to hole is fun. Their noises are interesting; some folks think it may be a very rudimentary language. I remain agnostic on this, though of course skeptical, but they are a very gregarious and chatty animal.

And, of course, they do have a sense of drama.

Related posts:

Look hoos back
Owl be seeing you
Hoo barfed?
I toad you it’s Caturday

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Caturday, Humor, Pretty pictures

Comments (33)

  1. Don´t Panic

    “I watched “Holy Grail”; I know the score.”


    Still cute as hell kinda critters.

    Rabbits on the other hand…

  2. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, the Black Death, now THERE was a eugenics program.

    We’ve been incredibly lucky so far that our intrusions into the rain forests haven’t exposed us to a highly communicable disease that is also 90 percent lethal(ebola Zaire is air born but ONLY 40 percent lethal). ,,,but luck has a tendency to run out,,,eventually,,,

    Avoid all small critters. Like the virus that defeated the Martians, it’s the little critters that bite back the hardest.

    Prairie Dogs,,,cute but potentially deadly,,,

    Gary 7

  3. Michel
  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    I had an encounter with a much cuter critter.

    Well, cuteness – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder.
    But, yeah, cute. :-)

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    BTW. BA see :


    Y’know PZ has been doing these for a while, right? -)

  6. Michel

    “I had an encounter with a much cuter critter.”

    A Big, Old Mouse?

    We were so poor we couldn´t afford a plague!

  7. They’re the groundhogs of the West. And overgrown rats. You can tell how I feel about them … almost ran over one on my bike last week when it decided to run in front of me.

  8. josie

    well, prairie dogs aren’t the only critters to carry plague:

    basically any mammal that’s able to host the fleas (xenopsyllus cheopis) that host yersinia pestis can carry plague.

    Then there’s hansen’s disease (leprosy) in armadillos

    And Tularemia in bunnies

    and rabies in just about any mammal you can think of.

    I try to not worry to terribly much about getting disease from from critters through incidental contact. But I do have my vaccination against rabies :) (I used to work up close and personal with bats…and their teeth)

  9. Michel

    @Stuart R.
    What you need is a overgrown cat.
    (The lack of cats (due to superstition, something to do with witches etc.) was the main reason why the plague went so well in Europe.)

    And don´t forget toxoplasmosis in cats. Which is awesome. Makes the rats not afraid of cats. It´s a nuisance in humans though when they pick it up in the womb. Tends to blind them later in life. Oh and they can carry rabies too.

    “I used to work up close and personal with bats…and their teeth”
    What were you trying to prove?

  10. Jake

    I can confirm they are cute, but I prefer the view through my rifle scope.

  11. James H. (south of Dallas)

    Bring out your dead….

  12. josie

    “What were you trying to prove?”

    I don’t know what you’re asking actually. I was working with a museum collecting Neotropical mammals, especially bats. Museum collections are essential for understanding biodiversity, life history and conservation needs for many species –and not just charismatic megafauna like mammals and birds. The research that I and others did as a result of the collections is varied.

    As far as proving something it’s not like I was on Fear Factor trying to kiss bats without getting my lips bitten off. Part of collecting bats is capturing them in mist nets and then removing them –they tend to squirm and try to nom fingers. If you don’t hold them correctly they will land some pretty good bites.

    And if you think birds are easier, large finches can put a hurt on you too even without benefit of teeth. And then of course there are the occasional raptors that will get into the nets. For those guys I suggest taking off your outer shirt to neutralize the talons before disentangling the animal.

  13. Michel

    That makes sense.
    But it sounded Fear Factoryesque.

  14. katwagner

    Yes your friend is cute. However, right now I’m not into cute because we have a pack rat in the garage. He scattered my tomato plants and we had to hunt them down. He keeps eating the bait out of the trap, knocks everything off the workbench and dumped over my husband’s mug of lemonade. I mean, why the hell can’t Mr. Rat be outside? It’s gorgeous outside right now. And what the hell did I ever do to him, for cripe’s sake.

  15. No, it was not mainly the “lack of cats in Europe” that led to the Black Death (re @9). Also the reference under @8 is full of misinformation — Y. pestis does NOT “turn into a virus”. To keep this in perspective, there are only 10-20 cases on average per year in the US of bubonic plague; only 1 in 7 are fatal. The reasons for the severity of the Black Death in medieval Europe (and elsewhere) are more complex but probably have to do chiefly with 1) human ectoparasites that could transfer the pathogen from one host to the next and 2) pneumonic form of the disease spreading concurrent with bubonic & septicemic forms.

    But yes, prairie dogs are cute.

  16. Don´t Panic

    It´s a rat race out there…

  17. josie

    yes please!

    om nom nomnom

    those are incredibly cute and i might have to make some for my next get together 😀

  18. I can’t understand why Boulder doesn’t have an annual hunt and BBQ to keep the prarie dog population under control. When you ecosystem is no longer natural, it becomes man’s duty to control it – like the deer in Scotland, for example.

  19. If they get to close, you can always unleash the Rodenator :)

  20. Austin

    Well despite Stuart here not liking them, prairie dogs are an important keystone species of the Great Plains.

    From Wikipedia:

    “The prairie dog is also an ecosystem engineer. Prairie dog burrows provide the nesting areas for Mountain Plovers and Burrowing Owls. Prairie dog tunnel systems also help channel rainwater into the water table to prevent runoff and erosion, and can also serve to change the composition of the soil in a region by increasing aeration and reversing soil compaction that can be a result of cattle grazing. Prairie dogs also trim the vegetation around their colonies, perhaps to remove any cover for predators.[16] Even grazing species such as Plains bison, pronghorn, and Mule deer have shown a proclivity for grazing on the same land used by prairie dogs.[17] It is believed that they prefer the vegetative conditions after prairie dogs have foraged through the area.”

  21. Mount

    They don’t look so cute when they’re feasting on the entrails of their buddies next to them. They do that sometimes.

  22. They sell the little critters here in Florida for $100- 150.

    I think cattle ranchers and horseback riders might have a less favorable view of these critters.

    Me? I think they’re cute, and attempts at controlling them have been poorly managed (lots fo ecological damage for little practical gain.)

  23. bassmanpete

    And what the hell did I ever do to him, for cripe’s sake.

    There would be billions of animals that could say the same thing about humans re habitat destruction (amongst other things).

    When you ecosystem is no longer natural, it becomes man’s duty to control it – like the deer in Scotland, for example.

    Don’t you think humans have made a big enough mess already by trying to “control” things?

  24. JupiterIsBig

    My cousin’s dog caught the plague from those critters just this week …
    Bring out your dead …

  25. Digital Atheist

    Who says the rat with the thyroid problem is cuter? I happen to think the turtle was cuter 😛 lol

  26. Michel

    Bit funny. We work our butts off to kill of all kinda germs here on earth. But when you talk about Mars, suddenly people start to talk about ethics when it comes to terra forming and the possible consequences for bugs and germs.

  27. katwagner

    @22 bassmanpete – I agree with you about habitat and all that. Around here, ground squirrels’ burrows are homes for burrowing owls, which have to be one of the cutest things on the planet. As a side bar, some years ago I had a critter eating leaves off a small shrub in a flower bed. He piled leaves on the pathway, so I was on the lookout for – whatever. I found him finally, silvery gray with a brushy tail and I caught him in a stack of pavers. He was too pretty to kill with the pitchfork so I drenched him with the hose.

    Fish and Game said it was a “bushy tailed wood rat” or a pack rat. He left our yard, got in the neighbor’s doggie door, fought with their cats and trashed their kitchen. They used a hav-a-heart trap and took him to the river.

    p.s. the shrub died.

  28. Greatmatt

    My ex-wife had a pet prairie dog. Very cute, and very protective of it’s “family.” She had it before we started dating, and it would go nuts trying to attack me through it’s cage. But it got used to me. It really was a great little pet. At the same time, I know they are a pest in many areas, so I understand peoples attitudes about them.

  29. “And by the plague, I mean the plague, Bubonic Plague. That’s one reason I try not to get too close to them. I watched ‘Holy Grail’; I know the score.”

    Phil, meet Herb & Amy; Herb & Amy, meet Phil.

  30. Isaac

    Pie jesu domine, dona eis requiem.

  31. Wzrd1

    Plague, shmeague. That’s why they have that neat new thing called antibiotics for.
    Now, if it were one of a handful of virii, I’d say RUN.

  32. There is no such word as “virii”. “Virus” has no plural in Latin (even if it had one, it wouldn’t be “virii”, which is as ridiculous as “sheepses” is in English), and has only one plural in English, “viruses”.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar