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Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation - Animal of the Month

Pocket Gopher
(Geomys sp.)

by Bonnie Wroblewski

Pocket gopher (Geomys sp.)

This fuzzy little fellow was spotted scurrying across Dove Key Ranch one evening after a large rainstorm. Since pocket gophers rarely leave their burrows (see below), I quickly grabbed him up to ensure he was not injured or sick in any way. Three species of geomyids (Attwater’s (G. attwateri), Baird’s (G. breviceps), and Plains (G. bursarius) Pocket Gopher) inhabit our area, all almost identical morphologically, making it nearly impossible to establish to which species our muddy neighbor belonged without a genetic analysis. However, he was given a clean bill of health and released in hopes that he would reconstruct a tunnel system higher than the water table next time.
Pocket gopher, Geomys
Pocket Gopher
Photo courtesy Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation

Gophers in Texas:

Nine species of pocket gophers populate the subterranean world of Texas. Three of these (the Llano (G. texensis), the Texas (G. personatus), and the Attwater’s (G. attwateri) Pocket Gopher) are entirely endemic to the Lone Star state. With the exception of some geographical variation and difference in tooth morphology, the only way to distinguish among taxa is through their genetic variation.

The generic name Geomys means “earth mice,” and these hard-working excavators are perfectly suited to life underground. Tiny ears and eyes, truncated necks, and sleek fur that can be arranged either backwards or forwards make for easy movement through the soil. A muscular upper body and front legs terminating in long, curved claws (see picture above) join long incisors as formidable earth-moving equipment. When loamy soil and loose sands give way to rougher substrates or tangles of tree roots, pocket gophers switch gears from digging with their powerful fore feet to chiseling through obstacles with their elongated front teeth. While the idea of crunching through dirt with teeth may make humans cringe and set our dentists on speed-dial, not only are gopher incisors constantly growing to adjust for the erosion from their daily labor, but the front of their chompers are also coated with a thick layer of enamel. As the small rodent channels through the earth, the back of his/her teeth wear faster than the enamel-protected front, resulting in a continually resharpening chisel edge for digging.

A geomyid’s incisors are always exposed, leading to the development of the “pocket” of their common name: a fur-lined cheek pouch between the gopher’s cutting tools and tightly sealed lips. These handy compartments allow the vegetarian miner to carry plant leftovers to underground storage chambers, where the gopher uses his/her forepaws to push out the pocket’s contents and thoroughly clean the furred shopping bag, concluding the whole maneuver by pulling the pouch back into place with a specialized muscle.

Everything a pocket gopher does is underground: foraging, sleeping, raising young, and even mating. In rare cases, the squinty-eyed rodents may seek out a favorite veggie snack on the surface, but they often stay within a tail’s length of their burrow, only venturing farther when displaced by flooding rains or persistent digging predators such as coyotes, striped skunks, or badgers.

In order to stock their stomachs and subterranean larders, pocket gophers excavate shallow tunnels, which allow them to perform the ever-popular magic trick: disappearing plant. One second the poppy mallow’s there, the next second, it’s completely gone. You may convince yourself that you’re suffering from some sort of heat-induced hallucination, but rather you should consider yourself fortunate to have witnessed a pocket gopher’s snack attack. Once a geomyid has finished processing whatever delicious root or tuber it has encountered along its route, the diner may pull the rest of the plant completely into its tunnel in order to finish off the meal or transport the remainder to a deeper pantry. Surficial burrows are only for satisfying the pocket gopher’s feeding requirements. Deep below these are more extensive tunnel systems that are witness to the rest of the geomyid’s life. Different chambers for food storage, nesting, and waste stretch through the earth below, the clues of which are only visible to surface-dwellers in the mounds of soil pushed to the heavens atop the chests and heads of these underground architects.

Subsurface tunnels also facilitate regeneration of the species. Male pocket gophers frantically burrow their way to females in the mood, quickly impregnate them, and then dig away to the next willing mate. Other than this brief seasonal encounter, geomyids rarely spend time with any individuals of their species after they wean from their mother’s care. In fact, if one pocket gopher encounters another, initial wheeze-filled warnings and gnashing teeth may escalate into a fight to the death.

Despite their reclusive nature, these industrious mammals are contributing a priceless service to the ecosystems on which farmers, ranchers, and even backyard gardeners depend. The tunnelings of pocket gophers aerate the soil through which they travel, which fosters better plant growth. Their subterranean dwellings also reduce erosion and aid in the conservation of groundwater.

So, the next time that you stumble across a hefty mound of dirt or a shallow network of burrows, don’t disparage the small excavators who led to their creation. Instead, thank your luck that Texas’ native pocket gophers are working to make your land more productive and adding a little excitement to the subterranean soap opera beneath your feet.

© Bonnie Wroblewski
http://www.dovekeywildlife.org
January 16, 2011

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