The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Gophers are Coming
Ro Wauer, January 18, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Although I have lived in the same house near Mission Valley for more than a dozen years, without once finding any evidence of gophers, this underground rodent has suddenly put in an appearance. At least I am starting to see evidence of its activities. Piles of freshly dug dirt are present in several nearby lawns. These piles are the result of a gopher leaving its underground tunnel to surface, pushing excavated soil out ahead. Then it promptly plugs up the hole for its own safety.

Gophers, more properly called pocket gophers, due to fur-lined cheek pouches for carrying food, not dirt, are fascinating mammals, even though they can be a real pain to anyone trying to keep a maintained yard. The cheek pouches are reversible, and open on the outside and inside the mouth. They live almost their entire life below ground, where they dig extensive tunnels. They are spectacular diggers, able to excavate a tunnel two to three hundred feet long in a single night. This digging machine is well designed with a heavy-set body with no appreciable neck, ears, or eyes. The eyes are minute and almost sightless. Their short legs are armed with strong, curved claws for digging, but when they encounter excessively hard ground, it is able to use its strong chisel-like front teeth. The large, yellowish incisor (gnawing) teeth are always exposed in front of the mouth opening.

The gopher is one of the few animals that can run backward as fast and as easily as it can move forward. Its short, fleshy tail, endowed with tactile organs, allows the gopher to feel its way around underground when it moves in reverse. A quick retreat serves it well when it needs to escape a fast-digging predator. Its above ground activity is mostly spent foraging for green vegetation, although the majority of its food - roots, tubers, and stems - is secured from below the surface.

A gopher's underground quarters consists of a nest, a toilet room, and eight or nine storage rooms, all connected with a network of tunnels. The gopher's nest, maintained only by the female, is a round ball of finely shredded leaves and grass eight to nine inches through and located close to the storage rooms. Males court the females, often fight with rival males, sometimes to the death, but return to their own series of tunnels after mating. The toilet room is periodically closed off and a new one is dug. The storage rooms, usually packed with roots and tubers, are situated at an appropriate depth so that they remain dry yet deep enough so that surface temperatures do not unduly effect the food supply.

Texas has six of the 18 North American pocket gophers. Two species (genus Geomys) occur in South Texas: Attwater's and Texas pocket-gophers. Attwater's pocket-gopher, located only in the Coastal Bend area, is one of the smallest, less than ten inches nose to tail. Texas pocket-gopher, resident in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and northward along the coast to Refugio and Goliad, is 15 inches in length. Both are pale brown in color with an even paler hairless tail.

Pocket-gophers belong to a unique family of mammals, Geomyidae, closely related to squirrels and mice. But they often are confused with moles, a smaller and more primitive family of underground dwellers. A mole's presence can be detected by low ridges of dirt that they push up as they move just beneath the surface; they also push up smaller mounds.

Pocket-gophers are not the most welcome new yard mammal, but since Mother Nature has more influence than I do, the best thing is to appreciate them for their fascinating characteristics.

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