Conservation of prairie dog ecosystem engineering may support arthropod beta and gamma diversity

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Ecosystem engineering by animals can create new habitats and increase the heterogeneity of the habitat mosaic that in turn can increase plant and animal diversity. Prairie dogs in North America alter both the above- and below-ground structure of the landscape and create novel habitats in grassland ecosystems. The ground-dwelling arthropod community associated with Gunnison’s prairie dog modified habitats is compositionally different from that found in the surrounding grassland. Individual arthropod families and species have different distributions in both active prairie dog towns and inactive towns, compared to unmodified grasslands. These different responses to ecosystem engineering increase beta (between-habitat) and gamma (regional) diversity. This study suggests that simple measures of alpha diversity (species richness) may not adequately quantify overall diversity and that measures of beta diversity may be necessary to assess the role of prairie dogs as keystone engineers. Thus, conservation of prairie dogs and the engineering process may have positive effects for numerous species both locally and regionally.