published Saturday, February 8th, 2014

Revamped prairie dog exhibit opens at Chattanooga Zoo

The Chattanooga Zoo unveiled the recently updated prairie dog exhibit Friday. The burrowing veteran "Sidewinder," left, sits in the morning sun with two others.
The Chattanooga Zoo unveiled the recently updated prairie dog exhibit Friday. The burrowing veteran "Sidewinder," left, sits in the morning sun with two others.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Sidewinder, Flower, Digger and Tuskers really have their work cut out for them: These four prairie dogs have a brand new home to tunnel at the Chattanooga Zoo.

On Friday, the zoo opened its revamped prairie dog exhibit before an audience of more than 20 staff members, supporters, biologists and Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy students.

The original exhibit was built in 1998 but was closed last year for renovations. After a semester of work from a team of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga engineering and biology students, the 400-square-foot, open-air exhibit is back in business -- and in dire need of an intricate burrow system.

Luckily, the four resident ground squirrels are up to the task.

"They've been really busy already. They've got a few holes started," said zoo spokeswoman Marisa Ogles.

Ogles said the new exhibit was possible thanks to a partnership between the zoo, UTC, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga and the girls leadership academy.

"It's cool to see how this project has come together, because it's leading to another exhibit that UTC has become involved with other exhibits," she said.

The zoo and UTC are working together on a future rebuild for its naked mole rat exhibit.

Loren Hayes, assistant professor of biological and environmental science at UTC, said the exhibit upgrade has been a great opportunity for students to study animal behavior.

Prairie dogs are social rodents and live in communal groups. Students have been watching how they interact and will continue to do so in the new enclosure.

"Some of the social prairie dogs and the ground squirrels ... produce what are called alarm calls in response to predators," Hayes said. "In some species of rodents that have similar behaviors they have communal nursing of young, what humans refer to as wet nursing. ... The question we wanted to answer on the behavioral end of things is how will the exhibit influence their behavior."

Zoo CEO Dardenelle Long said the partnership was an excellent opportunity to update the aging prairie dog exhibit.

Students at the UTC College of Engineering last semester engineered and built a new, more immersive, habit for the prairie dogs. Zoo visitors now can step into a "viewing tunnel" and see the burrowing rodents on the ground level.

"It's really a viewing opportunity that make the exhibit more kid-friendly," Long said.

"When you can collaborate resources like this, obviously it saves money for everyone, and it makes an opportunity to make some new friends of the zoo," Long said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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