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Pocket Gopher Farmers

Most everyone is familiar with pocket gophers. North Dakota is home to two species of pocket gophers, the plains pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius) which is mainly found in the Red River Valley, and the northern pocket gopher (Thomomys talpoides) which is found mostly west of the Red River Valley.

We seem to see those gopher mounds most everywhere, but seldom see the gophers. Pocket gophers are dark brown to grayish, about 8 inches long, have small eyes and ears, buck teeth, and long front claws for digging. The “pocket” is a reference to their fur-lined pockets on the outside of each cheek for carrying food.

As most everyone knows, pocket gophers spend the vast majority of their time underground tunneling through the soil and feeding on plant material. They feed on a variety of underground plant parts such as roots, rhizomes, tubers, corms, bulbs, etc. They are considered generalist herbivores but seem to prefer broadleaved plants, such as alfalfa, and avoid woody plants.

One may, on a rare occasion, see a pocket gopher above ground. They are known to occasionally feed above ground very near the tunnel entrance which allows for a quick escape if danger is detected. While tunneling they may also pull above ground plant parts down into the tunnel. But the bulk of their diet comes from what they encounter through their tunneling activities. That is where things are getting interesting.

We occasionally hear about beavers being compared to engineers. Well, pocket gophers have been recently compared to farmers! Based on recent research conducted by scientists at the University of Florida it appears that at least the southeastern pocket gopher is tending, or “farming,” the underground plant parts they harvest to eat.

The gophers tunneling activities, for example soil aeration, soil mixing, distribution of feces and urine in the tunnels, as well as the actual harvesting of plant materials, increases root growth and perhaps other below ground plant parts. And as you might be thinking, the increased new succulent and nutritious growth protrudes into the tunnel which is then consumed. It looks like these pocket gophers are raising a fresh crop of roots

So, as you look around at all those pocket gopher mounds this summer, consider that maybe, just maybe, those North Dakota pocket gophers are also doing a little root farming down there.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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