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A Critical Review of Assumptions About the Prairie Dog as a Keystone Species

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spp.) have been labeled as keystone species because of their influence on biological diversity and ecosystem function. However, the validity of several assumptions used to support keystone status is questionable. We review the strength of the evidence and the magnitude of the prairie dog's effects on ecosystem structure and function. We use this review to reevaluate the keystone role for prairie dogs. Our goal is to encourage sound management of the prairie dog ecosystem by improving the ecological foundation of their keystone status. Our review confirms that prairie dogs affect a number of ecosystem-level functions but that their influence on prairie vertebrates may be less than previously suggested. Species richness and abundance patterns were variable among plants, mammals, and birds and were not consistently higher on prairie dog colonies compared to uncolonized areas. In addition, only nine of the 208 species listed in the literature as observed on or near prairie dogs colonies had quantitative evidence of dependence on prairie dogs. Abundance data indicated opportunistic use of colonies for an additional 20 species. A total of 117 species may have some relationship with prairie dogs, but we lacked sufficient data to evaluate the strength of this relationship. The remaining 62 species may be accidental or alien to the system. Despite our conclusion that some prairie dog functions may be smaller than previously assumed, collectively these functions are quite large compared to other herbivores in the system. We suggest that prairie dogs also provide some unique functions not duplicated by any other species and that continued decline of prairie dogs may lead to a substantial erosion of biological diversity and landscape heterogeneity across prairie and shrub-steppe landscapes. Thus, we concur that keystone status for prairie dogs is appropriate and may aid conservation efforts that help protect species dependent on prairie dogs and support other important ecosystem functions.

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Kotliar, N., Baker, B., Whicker, A. et al. A Critical Review of Assumptions About the Prairie Dog as a Keystone Species. Environmental Management 24, 177–192 (1999).

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