Scientists Unlock the Secret to Prairie Dogs’ Social Networks to Save Them

Some rodents have more friends than others, and knowing who’s in and who’s out could help conservation efforts.

(Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

Aug 1, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

A kiss is just a kiss. Unless you’re a prairie dog, and then locking lips becomes key to survival, researchers have discovered.

Jennifer Verdolin, an animal behavior researcher at the federally funded National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, spent hundreds of hours watching prairie dogs interact in Arizona, studying their special “greet kisses.”

Greet kisses are an important part of prairie dog life, and they happen when two individuals approach each other, lock teeth, and kiss. “It can be a sign of who’s in your group and who’s not in your group,” said Verdolin. “If they belong to the same social group, they kiss and part ways. And if they don’t, they break apart and fight.”

Based on kissing patterns, Verdolin sorted the animals into social groups consisting of seven to 15 individuals.

When she presented her work at North Carolina State University, Amanda Traud, a biomathematics student, thought of a different way to approach the data. “I saw a network,” she said. “I thought, we could so do network science with this.”

Verdolin and Traud teamed up to devise a mathematical formula to quickly chart the prairie dogs’ social networks by extrapolating from a small set of data. Their research has been published in the journal Ecological Complexity.

Sylvatic plague afflicts prairie dogs, killing up to 90 percent of infected animals. If prairie dogs have to be moved because of a plague outbreak, it’s crucial to speedily identify which individuals belong to what groups.

Analyzing behavioral data gave the researchers novel insights about the animals’ social networks.

Traud found that certain prairie dogs were bridges, connecting otherwise separate groups. Others were hubs, interacting with prairie dogs from many groups. “There was no way that I was able to tell this substructure or see the cliques you could find in social networks,” said Verdolin. “Only by using this mathematical approach were we able to highlight and reveal these kinds of key individuals.”

Social networking research is now being applied to a wide range of social species, from dolphins to elephants. Traud’s doctoral research focused on networks of ants, looking at ways the queen influences the rest of the colony.

Verdolin pointed out that such data analysis could also help the Tasmanian devil, whose population has been decimated by a communicable cancer.

“If you can understand who might be a key individual in groups, you can better understand how disease is passed,” she said.