I visit many zoos worldwide, and at San Diego Zoo they have a great prairie dog exhibition. When I was there last time, I kept seeing prairie dogs kiss and asked the keeper why they did this.
Prairie dogs kiss to greet each other. Prairie dogs are territorial, and the kissing shows if they are from the same family group. If the recipient is from a different group, a fight may break out.
Prairie dogs are amazing animals and this behavior is not found in many mammals. If you want to know more about why they do this, please read on.
Do Prairie Dogs Kiss?
Prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) kiss each other as a greeting. They kiss by touching each other noses and knocking their teeth together.
The behavior of kissing is associated with their family groups. The groups are the basic units of the prairie dog society, with Members of the same group inhabiting the same territory.
Kissing normally occurs between members of the same group. Members of the same group will also groom each other if they are members of the same family.
Prairie dogs are one of a few animals that use this behavior. Bonobos and lemurs also kiss when greeting. Kissing between prairie dogs is similar to human beings. The two rodents touch their mouths together and sometimes briefly press their tongues together. After greeting each other, they accompany other affectionate behaviors such as playing or grooming one another.
Even though prairie dogs kiss, they don’t always get along. Prairie dogs will fiercely defend their territories from social groups that live next to each other.
A prairie dog group will not allow prairie dogs from different social groups to enter their territory. Sometimes prairie dogs greet each other by kissing first and then will fight. This happens because they realize they are not in the same family group.
Why Do Prairie Dogs Kiss?
Prairie dogs use the behavior of kissing to distinguish friends from foes. When prairie dogs meet with one another, they will kiss.
If both prairie dogs realize they are from the same family, they will either play or groom or just part ways. However, if they know they are not from the same family, they engage in an aggressive tussle or high-speed chase.
- Scent Exchange: When two prairie dogs press their noses together, they are engaged in a form of scent exchange. Each prairie dog has scent glands located near their nose, and these glands produce unique chemical scents. By touching noses, they transfer these scents to each other.
- Communication: Prairie dogs have a complex social structure within their colonies. They use scent to communicate information about their identity, status, and even their readiness to mate. When they engage in “kissing,” they are sharing and gathering information about each other’s identity and possibly their current physiological state.
- Conflict Resolution: In some cases, “kissing” can also serve as a form of conflict resolution. When two prairie dogs have a disagreement or encounter tension within the colony, engaging in this behavior can help calm tensions and reestablish social harmony.
Kissing is their way of saying hello to each other. Prairie dogs are very social animals, but also territorial. They cannot pass without greeting, and this tells them if an outsider has invaded their area.
Prairie dogs live in social groups consisting of between seven to fifteen individuals. Prairie dogs also live in subgroups, referred to as wards, and different families live in these wards. Prairie dogs kiss to know if they belong to the same ward.
The average prairie dog territory takes up from as little as 0.05 to 1.0 hectares. The boundaries of these territories have well-established borders that coincide with physical barriers like rocks and trees. The male prairie dog will, at all costs, defend his territory.
They will kiss if they are at the edge of their territory and meet another prairie dog. If the male realizes it is another male after the initial greeting, they will alter their behavior.
The prairie dogs will start staring at each other, making false charges, flaring their tales, chattering their teeth, and sniffing each other’s perianal scent glands. The intruder often leaves before any damage is inflicted.
Prairie dogs engage in a behavior often referred to as “kissing,” but it’s not a true expression of affection or intimacy as seen in humans. Instead, this behavior has a different purpose:
Mothers will approach a litter and kiss every young prairie dog to determine if they are all hers. Female prairie dogs also meet at the entrance to the burrow during their daily foraging. They will kiss to confirm if they belong to the same family.
Prairie dogs also sometimes have hostile kisses. This is where one or both of the individuals involved will jerk or jump away from the kiss. They may respond with an agitated squeak or will sometimes slap the other prairie dog.
The most hostile kiss is between males over a territorial dispute. This can be pretty dangerous, where, rather than kissing, the two males will engage in a fight.
All prairie dogs, adult males, females, and juveniles, engage in the behavior of kissing.
When a prairie dog is out of its burrow and exposed to potential predators or threats, it needs to remain vigilant to stay safe. However, the presence of a crowd or a larger group of fellow prairie dogs can provide safety through collective vigilance.
When more prairie dogs are around, the individual prairie dog may feel more secure and less stressed. With others watching out for danger, it can relax its guard and spend less time scanning for threats.
A noticeable behavior at the zoo was that as more people watched the prairie dogs, the adults became much more affectionate, and were kissing and touching more.
Larger crowds had the opposite effect on young prairie dogs as they became tenser with a large audience. They also fought more while kissing less. The reason for the immature prairie dogs’ behavior is because they are behaving like a youngster.
References And Further Reading
Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society by Con Slobodchikoff
This book delves into the fascinating world of prairie dog communication and their complex social structures.
The Prairie Dog Sentinel of the Plains by Russell A. Graves
This book offers insights into the role of prairie dogs in maintaining the health of the plains ecosystems.
Cynomys, the Prairie Dogs by John L. Hoogland
An in-depth scientific book that covers various aspects of prairie dog biology and behavior.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.