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Yes, you read the title correctly. Normally, when one thinks of prairie dogs, white is not a major color that comes to mind. Most prairie dogs in the United States are brown with a black tip on their tail. However, when you get off of Interstate 90 at Cactus Flats, Highway 240, between Wall and Kadoka, South Dakota, you will be amazed and entertained by the sheer amount of prairie dogs in the area that are WHITE. Their domination stretches from the exit itself all the way to the Prairie Homestead historic site about 3 miles south, toward the northeast entrance to Badlands National Park.
We discovered as we photographed these special little wonders that they are not albinos as we first suspected when we got off the interstate, as they did not have red eyes. So, we began to do a little research and discovered that they are actually leucistic, meaning that their skin and fur lack basic color pigmentation, but not melanin, which results in white skin and pink eyes. Like albinoism, it is a recessive gene that seems to cause the anomaly, but we were just amazed that so many individuals over such a span of distance carried on those particular genes.
From a human perspective, white prairie dogs have brought an additional means of income to this rural area of South Dakota, through two tourist attractions. The Prairie Homestead historic site has protected them in their area, although rumor has it they acquired the strain of prairie dogs from another location long ago so they are not native to this spot. Likewise, the “World’s Only 6-Ton Prairie Dog,” a 12-foot tall statue between the homestead and the highway, is a great spot to watch these adorable snowballs of fur. In addition in the warmer months, tourists visiting the Prairie Dog Town at this site can purchase peanuts that they can feed to this local town of critters.
From a wildlife perspective, we are a bit perplexed that these particular prairie dogs have survived for so long. They stick out like a sore thumb on the prairie!! I am sure that birds of prey and coyotes would find little challenge in taking these white members of the towns out for dinner. In fact, a similar incident of albinoism happened in Wyoming and the whole town was indeed wiped out in a matter of weeks. See their very good, factual article on animal albinoism and leucism here (sponsored by the NWF).
In any case, should you be traveling to the Badlands, Wall Drug, or just through the state on I-90, we encourage you to stop at Exit 131 and check out these amazing little ghosts along the highway! You will be amazed, and your family will be enchanted.