Nobody likes gophers, right? We do everything we can to get rid of them, even KILL (gasp!). But wait a minute. Every plant and animal has its proper place and its proper purpose, so maybe we need to learn the proper place and purpose of the gopher. Not sure what a gopher looks like? You are forgiven, because hardly anybody ever sees them.
Gophers are medium-sized rodents (5-7” long) with pink feet, hairless tails, and long, sharp claws on their short front paws for digging, which they do very well and very rapidly. They have tiny ears, small eyes, make almost no noise (no one hears them anyway) and can be almost any color, from white to brown to nearly black. Like all rodents, gophers have teeth that continuously grow, so they have to keep them worn down by gnawing on hard objects. They also have specialized lips which keep dirt out of their mouths while digging. They navigate their tunnels by touch and by specialized hairs on their wrists and tails, called vibrissae.
A gopher’s place is underground, and they spend almost their entire life there. They live in a network of tunnels dug parallel to the surface of the soil (bottom left photo by Ojai Valley Land Conservancy). Some tunnels are shallow (only 6 inches deep) for gathering food, and others are deeper (up to 6 feet), for nursery and storage areas. A gopher lives a solitary life in its tunnels, except during spring mating, when the male visits the female’s tunnel. The female gestates for 50-55 days then delivers a litter of 1-7 hairless, helpless, eyes-closed babies, which remain with the female until able to live independently.
Gophers are completely herbivorous, feeding on roots, bulbs, rhizomes, herbs, grasses, seeds, and other plant parts. Gopher activity can be detected by the appearance of piles of freshly excavated dirt or the disappearance of plants. The little critters have adapted very well to living with people because of their cultivated gardens. If a gopher is seen, it will probably be in someone’s garden, having just eaten the roots of a rosebush, or making an iris ‘disappear’ underground. Gophers have been observed pulling whole plants down into the ground, which is the primary reason why they are not appreciated by gardeners.
While a nuisance for a gardener, such activities does serve a purpose. They do a wonderful job aerating the soil, and redistributing it, which is good for the soil, and ultimately the garden. Feeding on the plants also ensures that no one species will take over, and thus helps encourage biodiversity. So, we should learn to share, and appreciate them for the important part they play.
Botta’s Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) is native to all of Arizona and is the species that lives in the Mogollon Highlands. Two other species are found in Arizona but have extremely limited habitats. They are called pocket gophers because they have fur-lined pockets extending from their cheeks to their shoulders in which they can store prodigious amounts of food or nest-making material, which they remove by inverting the pockets.
If you still don’t want them around, plant some sage…… they seem not to like it as much.
Contributed by Naturalist Sandy Stoecker