From what we've seen in nature documentaries, life in a colony looks pretty sweet. You sleep together, feed together, frolic together and someone's always watching to make sure those darn hawks don't swoop in and rip everybody's heads off.

Even when a Cape cobra comes calling – your mortal enemy, armed with chemical weapons – it doesn't matter how small and weak you are by yourself because you know when you step to, you've got a slathering band of hellions stepping with you. ("This is madnesssss!" hisses the snake. To which you reply, "Madness? This. Is. Meerkat Manor!!!")

But a new study published in Ecological Complexity last month suggests that for some prairie dogs at least, the colony is not a uniform army. Rather, it's more like a high school full of cliques, social butterflies and queen bees. And just like human high school, there’s an awful lot of smoochin'. 

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"And not all prairie dogs kiss the same," says Jennifer Verdolin, a scholar in residence at Duke University and research affiliate at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Verdolin has been studying the social lives of what she affectionately calls 'p-dogs' since 1999. 

When individual prairie dogs interact, they first lean in, turn their heads and lock teeth. P-dog researchers call this 'greet kissing'. When the make-out sesh occurs between members of the same social group, they usually just swap spit and go about their day.

I know it was you, Fredo!

But members of separate social groups react differently. The greet kiss can be followed by acts of aggression, like fights or chases. Sometimes during mating season, two males will even stand on their hind legs until one reaches out and grabs the other's face, then leans in for a tension-loaded greet kiss. ("I know it was you, Fredo!")

It's not clear what prairie dogs get out of greet kissing, but Verdolin suspects males use it as a way to assess the strength of their rivals. Alternately, she says it's possible p-dogs can transmit identification information through chemicals in their saliva. Or maybe it’s just a way to reinforce social bonds. In any event, prairie dogs do a lot of kissing ... and some individuals are looser with their lips than others.

Verdolin spent over 800 hours observing the Gunnison prairie dogs (Cynomys gunnisoni) of the southwest United States, detailing their social lives through behavioural and spatial observation. She could tell you where each p-dog liked to spend most of its time, who liked to eat together and other general goings-on around the colony. She became like a concerned parent monitoring the life of her non-communicative teenagers.

But when she teamed up with Amanda Traud, a doctoral candidate in biomathematics at North Carolina State University, the two were able to go full-on 21 Jump Street and see the social hierarchy of the prairie dogs with an entirely new level of complexity. (While we're naming names, the study also had a third author – Robert Dunn.)

It turns out that not only do prairie dogs form cliques within the colony, but some colonies have cliques within cliques. Cliques are connected by specific 'bridge' animals. These outgoing few seem to have no problem slipping between groups and were seen greet-kissing members of numerous cliques, from the freaks to the geeks.

Other prairie dogs showed significantly more interactions than would be expected by chance. The researchers write that these p-dogs "play a critical role in maintaining group cohesiveness and their removal can sometimes alter group dynamics substantially". Verdolin and Traud refer to these busy-body individuals as 'hubs'. But I'm going to call them Regina Georges.

So, Gunnison prairie dogs have more complicated social lives than we previously thought. What of it?

"Well, it relates to conservation," said Verdolin. "When we have to relocate prairie dog colonies" – say, to put up another Bed, Bath, and Beyond – "we usually have to do so very quickly, and there's pretty good indication that prairie dogs that are moved within their social group adjust better."

Remember, traditional methods would require someone like Verdolin to sit in a field for 800+ hours before it would be possible to know which p-dogs belonged together. But with social network analysis made available by biomathematics, it takes only a fraction of that time to identify distinct groups.

But there's another reason it's important we learn more about these animals – prairie dogs have been known to carry cooties. And when I say 'cooties', I of course refer to The Plague. In fact, four people contracted the disease this summer after coming into contact with a dead dog. (Plague spreads by flea bites and officials think the dog might have caught a few bad ones while traipsing through a prairie dog colony. Rabbits are another suspect.)

"Understanding the spread of disease has implications for both human health and animal health," said Verdolin. "If we can begin to understand how the disease is transmitted in a prairie dog colony then we might be able to find ways to mitigate it."

So whether it's to enable conservation efforts, protect against disease or simply understand animal behaviour on another level, Verdolin says social network analysis is an under-appreciated tool. In other words, it may provide a window into the social labyrinth of mammals not seen since The Breakfast Club.

Top header image: Maret Hosemann, Flickr