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Dog days: Don’t forget Punxsutawney Phil’s endangered cousins

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Vancouver Island marmotNow that you know we’re getting six more weeks of winter, why not snuggle up in front of the computer to ponder the fates of the groundhog’s less fortunate cousins.

The prairie dog—the "groundhog of the West" as it is sometimes known—needs all the attention it can get. All five species of prairie dogs are on the decline, and their habitat has practically disappeared, now standing at less than 10 percent of their historic ranges. And yet only one prairie dog species, the Mexican prairie dog (Cynomys mexicanus), is currently protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Several U.S. zoos are using Groundhog Day to call attention to prairie dogs, dubbing today Prairie Dog Day. The Denver Zoo had a big celebration on Sunday, and the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden in Evansville, Ind., had its big to-do this morning.

In Canada, the Toronto Zoo is calling attention to a different groundhog relative, the Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis), one of the world’s most critically endangered mammals. After nearly going extinct a few decades ago, the marmot has benefited from a captive breeding program hosted at that zoo, but it hasn’t been an easy road. The population has fluctuated from 25 to 30 animals to 300 then down to 75. Today, approximately 210 live in the wild.

You’ll probably hear a lot more about the Vancouver Island marmot this month: it’s the mascot of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

As for groundhogs (Marmota monax) themselves, they are not endangered, but People for the Ethical Treatment o Animals (PETA) is calling for the replacement of Punxsutawney Phil with a robot, calling his treatment inhumane. Which is exactly what we say about six more weeks of winter.

Image: The Vancouver Island marmot, via The Marmot Recovery Foundation

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  1. 1. flyneye 4:13 pm 02/3/2010

    It would probably be easier to get cooperation in preserving these prairie rats if there were a way to rid the colonies of rabies. That coupled with the leg breaking holes that plague farmers cattle is the main cause of extermination of what is considered a pest.

    Link to this

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