Which creature promotes healthy soil, is often seen as a pest, and has cheeks perfect for storing leftovers?
On my weekend hikes, I stay alert for any tiny movement. Rustling noises often lead me to discover an interesting creature, but only if I pay close attention. One animal I would often hear, but rarely see, is the pocket gopher. As soon as they popped up from their burrows, the bushes shifted around, making an intriguing sound I had to investigate. Once my eyes locked with them, all I would see was a furry brown face rushing back underground.
Finally, on one special hike, I managed to find a burrow opening right in the middle of the trail. I knew this was a rare chance at getting a photo of a pocket gopher without a barrier of dense vegetation, so I waited patiently knowing I would only have a few seconds to take some pictures before he dashed back underground. And sure enough, I was able to get one good shot!
Where are their famous pockets?
Pocket gophers get their name from their cheek pouches, which are perfect for storing and transporting food. They mostly eat roots and tubers, but occasionally they’ll get a craving for plant material above ground. They can’t forage outside of their burrows for too long, though, or they risk predation. Their plant-based foods are full of moisture, so pocket gophers don’t need an external water source – they get all their H2O from plants.
These rodents are built for chomping down tough plant material. Their four front incisors never stop growing, so they don’t wear down their teeth from all that munching. Towards the back of their mouths, pocket gophers have flat molars and premolars suitable for chewing on tough vegetation. Looks like these vegetarians don’t need dental insurance!
About those burrows
Pocket gophers are masters of the underground world. They live most of their lives in tunnel networks, only occasionally coming above ground to munch on a plant, find a mate, or move homes. Their sensitive whiskers and tails help them navigate their dark, dirt-filled world, and their clawed front paws are built for digging holes. They can also use their teeth to gnaw their way through the soil, but first they place their lips behind their long incisors to ensure they don’t eat a bunch of dirt – they wouldn’t want to ruin their appetite!
As a solitary and territorial species, pocket gophers need a way of claiming their tunnel networks. This is where their powerful scent comes in. The odor from their feces, along with messages to stay away, can spread to pocket gophers throughout the region. If a pocket gopher does happen to scamper into the wrong tunnel, the home owner will clack his/her teeth with a clear warning to turn back around. Some scientists believe that pocket gophers can sense vibrations in the ground, allowing them to recognize incoming danger.
The act of digging tunnels aerates the soil, benefitting the overall ecosystem. Nutrients above and underground get mixed together, promoting one of nature’s life-sustaining processes: decomposition. In today’s world where a lot of soil has been hardened by heavy machinery and degraded by chemicals or overgrazing, this practice is a scarce but necessary one.
Degraded soil repels rain and snowfall, creating erosion and runoff. Land with plenty of holes, however, provides paths for water to flow deep underground, filling aquifers and feeding plants. The feces of pocket gophers then act as a fertilizer, promoting healthy vegetation. In nature, nothing gets wasted, and every creature is part of a cycle that maintains Earth’s balance.
To see these diggers in action, watch this video:
A creature both desired and loathed by many
Pocket gophers have plenty to fear below and aboveground. Weasels and snakes will follow these rodents into their burrows on their searches for dinner. Foxes, coyotes, badgers, and dogs dig their way into the gopher’s home. If a gopher manages to escape an intruder, far above the ground owls, hawks, and herons await them. Needless to say, pocket gophers are a staple food for many other animals.
However, there is one species on the hunt for pocket gophers that does not care for their taste: humans. People categorize pocket gophers as pests because of the holes and dirt mounds they create. The ideal habitat of pocket gophers involves loose soil with low lying vegetation, such as golf courses, lawns, and crop fields. To rid these spaces of pocket gophers, humans go to extreme measures that harm these animals and the many creatures that rely on their burrows. Obliterating tunnel networks destroys fungal networks in the soil, once again degrading the land. Eradication methods sabotage entire ecosystems and not just the targeted animals.
At Bio4Climate, we advocate for holistic land management methods that benefit humans, other animals, and the planet. Rather than cookie cutter lawns with low biodiversity, we can invite nature back to our yards and appreciate all the beauty wildlife brings. If you really want these rodents off your property, you can simply scare them away with your neighbor’s cat or dog (or you can loudly clack your teeth), and the gophers will leave on their own terms.
Time for me to scurry underground!
By Tania Roa