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Wildlife in the Panhandle

The Panhandle is part of the Great Plains. It is home to animals that are depend on grasses and are adapted to live where water is less common and temperatures can be hot or cold.

Bison roamed this region grazing on grasses and were hunted by Native Americans. Because of too much hunting in the late 1800s by white market hunters, bison almost became extinct. Laws that regulated hunting and fees paid by hunters for management efforts helped restored the bison. Now bison number in the tens of thousands on protected lands such as national parks and private rangelands.

Bison are very large, powerful animals with big humps over their shoulders. They are adapted to live in the extreme temperatures of the Great Plains. Their thick fur keeps them warm. They use their horns to sweep away the snow to eat grasses. The shaggy hair on the top of their head protects their eyes from the snow.

An interesting fact about the bison is that it has four “stomachs” like a cow. Food is usually swallowed whole and stored in the first compartment. In the second compartment, stomach juices begin to break down the food. When the bison is resting, muscles in the second compartment push the partially digested food, known as “cud,” back into the bison’s mouth. There it is chewed and mixed with saliva. The “cud” is then swallowed and passed into the third compartment where it is digested even more. In the fourth and final compartment, it is mixed with stomach juices and passed into the intestines to be absorbed and used for energy. The type of food it eats is very tough and hard to break apart to digest, so it takes a long process using four stomachs to digest the food!

Prairie dogs are very social and live in groups called “prairie dog towns.” One of these “towns” can cover as much as 1,000 acres of prairie land. The town consists of a series of connected underground burrows. The town is divided into “wards” and the wards are further divided into “coteries.” A coterie consists of one adult male, up to four females, and offspring up to two years of age. Prairie dogs within a ward greet each other with bared teeth, which is a kind of a “kiss” and a form of recognition. These creatures have large eyes, brownish-tan fur, and short tails with a black tip. They feed on grass and herbs during the cool hours of the day. During this time, they also greet and groom each other. A “sentry “ prairie dog always sits at the opening to a burrow keeping watch. A bark is sounded as a warning for all to dive into their burrows until the “all clear” signal is given. Prairie dogs are an important part of the ecosystem. Other creatures use their abandoned burrows.

Rattlesnakes live in the Panhandle. Snakes help control the rodent population. Too many rodents would ruin crops, so the snakes helps farmers! Rattlesnakes are venomous and usually rattle their tails before they bite. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot tell the age of a rattlesnake by the number of rattles on its tail! The rattles start to fall off after 10 rattles or segments have been formed. Their forked tongue enables the rattlesnake to smell.

Canyon land in the Panhandle is the home to the petite Palo Duro Mouse, which lives no other place but here. It has adapted to live in “crevices” or cracks in the steep canyon walls. By adapting to live in these crevices, the Palo Duro Mouse is more protected from its predators. It’s body is at the most 4 inches long with a tail equally as long! It is reddish brown in color with white underneath. Primarily, it eats seeds.

Prickly pear cacti are common in this semi-arid region. The prickly pear is the state plant of Texas. It ranges from light to dark green and has pads, which are actually branches that provide photosynthesis, water storage, and produce flowers. They are covered with sharp needles, which are actually modified leaves. The flowers of these cacti are yellow, red, or purple. It also produces a fruit, which can be cooked and eaten, as can the “pads.” These pads have been eaten as a vegetable in Mexico for hundreds of years.