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Pocket Gophers of the United States

Nature volume 52, pages 278279 | Download Citation



IN Bulletin No. 5 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mr. Vernon Bailey gives an account of the habits and life-history of the Pocket Gophers of the United States, which contains a number of interesting facts and observations derived from various sources. These curious little rodents live underground in burrows which they tunnel in the soil. When working their way through the earth, they use the upper incisors as a pick to loosen the ground, while the fore-feet are armed with strong curved claws for digging. When a sufficient quantity of soil has accumulated behind an animal, he turns in the burrow and pushes it out in front until an opening in the tunnel is reached; the earth is here discharged, and forms a hillock similar to the hills thrown up by moles. Gopher burrows are extended and added to year by year, and the course is marked by the hills of soil brought up to the surface. Gophers do not hibernate, as has been commonly supposed, but work steadily throughout the winter. They do a great deal of good in mixing the soil, and in this way are probably most useful on poor or uncultivated ground. But, on the other hand, in agricultural districts the animals are highly injurious; they devour potatoes and other tubers and roots in large quantities, as well as corn, wheat, and other farm crops; and they destroy great numbers of fruit trees by gnawing off the roots. Gopher burrows also often do a great deal of damage in meadows or on the banks of artificial water-courses. So great is the harm done by Gophers, that in many districts bounties have been offered for their capture. One of the most striking features of Pocket Gophers is their possession of cheek pouches opening outside the mouth. It is commonly supposed that these pouches are used for carrying earth out of the burrows; but Mr. Bailey's investigations lead him unhesitatingly to the conclusion that this view is erroneous; they are used only for carrying food—pieces of potato and roots, leaves, &c.—to be eaten at ease in the seclusion of the animals— burrows, or to be stored up for use in the winter. The food is passed into the pouches by the forefeet; and the animals empty their pockets by pressing the sides of the head with the fore-feet from behind forwards, so that the contents fall out in front of them. In disposition Gophers are very fierce; and on the rare occasions on which they wander from their holes, frequently attack passers-by without any provocation. They are not very prolific animals, as is commonly stated, for only one litter of two or three young is produced in a year; but, although their rate of increase is slow, their mode of life protects them from many enemies which attack squirrels, mice, and many other rodents. The Pocket Gophers of the United States belong to three genera, Geomys, Cratogeomys, and Thomomys: Mr. Bailey gives two charts illustrating the distribution of these different genera and their constituent species.

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