Species Spotlight

Hummingbird moth. Laura Erickson photo

Hummingbird moth. Laura Erickson photo

From dung beetles to pronghorn, a broad community of wildlife inhabits the Southern Great Plains alongside lesser prairie-chickens.

Below, we highlight just a few of those species.

Badger

Yathin Krishnappa photo

Yathin Krishnappa photo

Closely related to otters, weasels, and wolverines, badgers are mainly carnivorous, with a diet that includes such burrowing rodents as pocket gophers, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs. MORE

Equipped with webbed feet and long claws, badgers are excellent diggers, and their abandoned burrows become homes for many other species, including burrowing owls.

In the Southern Great Plains, these mostly nocturnal mammals frequent open prairie habitat with sandy loam soils where they can easily dig for prey. Badgers are active year-round, but have been known to hole up for weeks during severe winter weather.

Cool fact: Badger dens may be used for many generations. Older dens can have as many as 30 to 40 exit holes and tunnels as deep as 15 feet.

Texas Horned Lizard

Ken Brunson photo

Ken Brunson photo

When you’re in lesser prairie-chicken country, you’re in Texas horned lizard country. People often refer to this reptile as a “horny toad,” a misnomer that likely comes from the lizard’s unusual rounded shape. MORE

Preferring sandy or rocky soils with sparse cover, Texas horned lizards mainly eat ants. They flatten and spread their bodies when approached by predators and humans, and their coloring makes them hard to see unless they move. Raptors (hawks and owls) prey on them, as well as the greater roadrunner, another widespread member of the Southern Great Plains community.

Texas horned lizard populations have declined, in part due to pesticide use, which kills the harvester ants that make up the bulk of its diet. Their decline has also been attributed to the spread of invasive non-native fire ants which destroy harvester ant colonies.

Cool fact: The Texas horned lizard is one of a handful of horned lizards equipped with an unusual defense mechanism — they squirt blood from their eyes to confuse and scare away predators.

Burrowing Owl

Andy Lawrence

Andy Lawrence photo

Who says all owls are nocturnal? Burrowing owls are active both night and day. The long legs of this grassland dweller enable it to sprint across the ground when hunting insects, scorpions, small mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. MORE

True to their name, burrowing owls live in underground. Although they can dig their own burrows, they often use abandoned burrows made by prairie dogs, badgers, skunks, and other mammals. Burrowing owl populations are declining across much of their range, largely due to habitat loss.

Burrowing owls will often line the entrance of their burrow with dung from prairie dogs, cattle, and other animals. This attracts dung beetles, one of their favorite foods.

Cool fact: When threatened by predators, burrowing owls can make a sound similar to that of a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Pronghorn

Andy Lawrence photo

Andy Lawrence photo

Though its genus name, Antilocapra, means “antelope goat,” the pronghorn is neither antelope nor goat. It is, instead, the sole surviving member of its genetic family, an American original. The fastest animal in the Western Hemisphere — clocked at 60 miles per hour — the pronghorn has few natural predators, though coyotes and golden eagles may prey on fawns. MORE

While pronghorns can cover more than 20 feet in a single bound, they rarely leap over obstacles like fences. Instead, they prefer to climb through fencing, where gaps between wire strands permit. Thought to have once been more abundant on the Great Plains than bison, with an estimated population of 40-50 million, pronghorns were, like bison, heavily hunted in the late 1800s.

Cool fact: The pronghorn’s “horns” are neither antlers (like those of deer) nor true horns (like those of cattle or bison), but instead have characteristics of both. They are made of sheaths of keratin growing on a bony core and are shed annually. Unlike true horns, which are always unbranched, the horn sheath is branched in male pronghorns.

Scaled Quail

Andy Lawrence photo

Andy Lawrence photo

Scaled quail, blue quail, cottontop — all are fitting names for this unique southwestern bird. Scaled quail live year-round in desert grasslands and shrublands of the Southwest. Habitat management for the lesser prairie-chicken benefits scaled quail as well — both species use similar cover for brood-rearing and eat many of the same foods. MORE

Scaled quail are very social and are usually found in large groups or “coveys” of up to 50 birds. During the breeding season, mated pairs break away from the covey to rear their young, then regroup in the fall. During winter when temperatures are cooler, coveys roost in tight groups on the ground with their heads facing outwards to detect approaching predators.

Cool fact: Scaled quail are monogamous, and both male and female scaled quail help construct the nest and raise the chicks.

Dung Beetle

Ken Brunson photo

Ken Brunson photo

Dung happens, and wherever there is dung on the prairie, there are dung beetles. Though there are thousands of species of dung beetles throughout the world, the most common prairie dung beetles are what scientists refer to as “rollers.” They use their powerful front legs to shape small piece of dung into balls that can be up to 10 times their body weight. MORE

The dung beetle then rolls the ball to a chosen hiding spot and buries it to use as food or as a “brooding ball,” inside of which the female lays her eggs.

Besides being an important food for many prairie wildlife species, dung beetles are integral to ecosystem and soil health. By eating and burying dung, they improve nutrient cycling, soil structure, and soil aeration. They also help cattle and wildlife by removing dung that would otherwise be a breeding ground for flies and other pests.

Watch a pair of dung beetles in Kansas rolling a dung ball.

Cool fact: Scientists have discovered that at least one species of African dung beetle, Scarabaeus satyrus, uses the Milky Way as a navigation guide.

Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher

Andy Lawrence photo

Andy Lawrence photo

One of the most elegant birds in the prairie community, the scissor-tailed flycatcher breeds in open habitats and shrubby country throughout the Southern Great Plains. Scissor-tailed flycatchers use their long tails as a rudder to expertly catch insects on the wing. MORE

Scissor-tailed flycatcher populations are considered stable, and biologists categorize the bird as a species of “least concern.” Protecting habitat for common species is just as important as protecting habitat for rare and declining species. By keeping common species common and protecting and improving their habitat under the umbrella of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, the scissor-tailed flycatcher and many other grassland species will continue to thrive across the landscape.

Cool fact: Before fall migration, scissor-tailed flycatchers gather in large flocks of up to 1,000 birds.

Western Hognose Snake

Andy Lawrence photo

The aptly-named hognose snake gets its unusual look from modified, upturned nasal scales. This species is an excellent burrower and uses its nose to push aside soil as it digs in the ground for toads and other small animals. MORE

The western hognose snake has a unique defense mechanism. When threatened, it flattens the skin on its neck, which gives it a hooded appearance much like a cobra. It may also inflate itself with air to appear larger. If this doesn’t work, the snake will sometimes go into convulsion-like motions, writhing on the ground before lying belly-up with its mouth open and tongue hanging out. After the danger has passed, the snake will roll over and slither away.

Cool fact: The western hognose snake is not venomous to humans, but has slightly toxic saliva that is used to help subdue prey.

Ornate Box Turtle

Ken Brunson photo

Ken Brunson photo

The ornate box turtle lives up to its name, with vivid yellow and red coloring on its front legs and shell. Adult males have red eyes and more red on their legs than the brown-eyed females. Adult males may also have a slight depression in the forward part of their plastron (lower shell) which distinguishes them from females. MORE

Like the lesser prairie-chicken, this turtle prefers prairie habitat with scattered low bushes but no trees. It is an omnivore, eating worms, insects, spiders, caterpillars, carrion, fruits, berries, and prickly pear. In winter, it hibernates below ground in burrows and can tolerate freezing temperatures for many days.

Cool fact: You can estimate the age of an ornate box turtle by counting the annual growth rings on the scutes (shell segments) of its carapace (upper shell).