U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version



Western North American Naturalist 72(2), © 2012, pp. 148–157


Intensive radio-tracking during August–December enabled us to collect detailed information on digging behaviors of a small sample of black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) occupying colonies of white-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys leucurus). A sample of 33 prairie dogs, also radio-tagged, progressively ceased aboveground activity during late summer and fall, presumably as they descended into burrows to hibernate. Most of the time ferrets spent digging was in November–December when >95% of the radio-tagged prairie dogs were inactive, suggesting that digging was primarily to excavate hibernating prey. Although 43.9% of the burrow openings were estimated to be in large mounds, which are common on colonies of white-tailed prairie dogs, all of a sample of 17 deposits of soil (diggings) made by ferrets were excavated at small mounds or nonmounded openings. The average duration of 23 nocturnal sessions of digging by ferrets was 112.2 minutes. A digging session consisted of multiple bouts of soil movement typically lasting about 5 min, and sessions were separated by pauses above- or belowground lasting several minutes. Bouts of moving soil from a burrow involved round-trips of 12.5–30.3 s to remove an average of 35 cm3 of soil per trip. These digging bouts are energetically costly for ferrets. One female moved 16.8 kg of soil an estimated 3.3 m during bouts having a cumulative duration of 178 minutes, removing a soil plug estimated to be 178 cm long. Increasing evidence suggests that some behaviors of ferrets and prairie dogs are coevolutionary responses between this highly specialized predator and its prairie dog prey.