Prairie dogs are colonial burrowing rodents. They are social animals that live in family units known as coteries. A coterie is usually a breeding pair with several younger prairie dogs. A group of these coteries makes up a colony. Colonies may contain a few family units and cover a couple of acres or they might contain hundreds of coteries across hundreds of acres. Colonies within a general area (a few square miles) form a complex. Juvenile prairie dogs occasionally move between colonies because they are either pushed out by the adults or leave to avoid conflict. This is important for prairie dogs as colonies sometimes die out. As long as there are other colonies within about 1 mile (1.5km), then dispersing prairie dogs will reestablish the colony. This type of connected system is called a metapopulation.
Prairie dogs are known as a keystone species. This means that they have a disproportionate impact on the ecosystem. In other words, their presence allows other species to be present. Prairie dogs dig burrows which animals like the burrowing owl live in. By clipping vegetation in a colony and keeping it short, prairie dogs allow birds like the mountain plover nest in their colonies. Many animals such as the swift fox and black-footed ferret use the prairie dog for food. There are also many plants that occur on prairie dog colonies that are not found in abundance on the surrounding prairie.
Prairie dogs often cause conflict with people because they dig burrows and eat plants that might be important for cattle or humans. However, the overall positive impact they have on the ecosystem makes them extremely important.