Monday, June 27, 2011

Northern Pocket Gopher

Northern pocket gopher (c) John Ashley
Northern Pocket Gopher
Gazing out my office window towards the lake today, a blip of terrestrial motion caught my attention. But when I focused on the yard, nothing. With my eyes back on the computer screen, once again I detected motion in my peripheral vision. I stared at the sandy soil for a full minute before the source finally surfaced. It's a northern pocket gopher, and he's moving into my front yard. How convenient, I tell myself, and take a break from my own work to watch this little guy do his job.

A pocket gopher's never-ending job - much to the dismay of people with tidier yards and gardens than mine - is to dig borrows. Lots of burrows. But you seldom see the source of the burrow. These rat-sized rodents (though much higher on the cuteness scale) resemble overgrown gerbils with their rounded ears and whiskered faces.

These guys are "fossorial," meaning that they live almost entirely underground. They dig through fine soils with clawed front feet, and occasionally turn around to push the loose soil to the surface (like the guy in this photo). From shallow feeding tunnels, they nip off roots and pull the whole plant under to harvest food in relative safety.

This is our only true "gopher." It gets its name from a pair of external cheek pockets that it stuffs with plant parts to unload into an underground storage chamber. This chamber along with a grass-lined nest chamber are located in a deeper tunnel system that is below the frost line. This is important because this little guy does not hibernate.  That fact alone is enough to gain you a little respect here in Montana. But it does make me wonder just how fossorial critters find each other when it comes time for mating.