A Bad Rap
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Researchers Francis E. Putz and Veronica Selden investigated 12 tunnels belonging to southeastern pocket gophers in Florida. They wanted to understand how the creatures were able to dig these tunnels – a very laborious process – and remain full of energy.
They collected root samples from the soil around the tunnels and calculated how much root mass a gopher would encounter while excavating a three-foot tunnel.
Researchers observed that the gophers would nibble on the ingrown roots, which compensated for some of the energy lost in the burrowing process, according to the New York Times.
But this nibbling, combined with traces of gopher feces and the churning of soil in the tunnels revealed a bigger state of play.
The team determined that the mammals were practicing a form of simple agriculture: They created favorable conditions for root growth by munching on them to encourage new sprouting, spreading their feces as fertilizer and aerating the soil as they churned.
The findings suggest that gophers could be the first non-human mammals to be recognized as farmers. Still, some scientists remain skeptical about the labeling, countering that other animals – such as birds and cattle – can also be labeled “farmers” because they also positively contribute to plant life.
However, the authors explained that, unlike other creatures, gophers “cultivate and maintain this ideal environment for roots to grow into.”
Putz added that the study aims to create a better understanding of the ecological benefits of gophers, and help protect them.
“If you go to the web and put in ‘pocket gopher,’ you’ll see more ways to kill them than you can count,” he said.