The Gunnison’s prairie dog structures a high desert grassland landscape as a keystone engineer

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The influence of landscape spatial structure on ecological processes has recently received much attention. Comparisons are made here between the spatial structure of grasslands, and active and extirpated Gunnison's prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni Hollister) towns at the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, U.S.A. The spatial structure of bare ground was quatified using a box-counting technique to extract landscape fractal dimensions, D, and bare-ground patch size. These landscapes are fractal, and active prairie dog towns had higher fractal dimensions, i.e. a more homogeneous spatial structure as D approaches 2, than inactive towns, which had higher fractal dimensions than unmodified grasslands. Morisita's index suggested that shrubs were more randomly distributed on prairie dog towns and more aggregated on grassland habitats. The different spatial distributions of bare ground and shrubs have the potential to influence resource distributions between these habitats for both prairie dogs and other fauna. Consequently, the presence of prairie dogs in these grasslands increases grassland landscape heterogeneity at large spatial scales, potentially enhancing beta diversity.