Michael Ellis: Gophers

2 min

Michael Ellis explores the burrowing, tunneling, hungry world of the industrious gopher.

There were 15 of us standing in a circle staring down at the ground as I attempted to entice the gopher out of his hole. By placing pieces of a carrot farther and farther, I had managed to lure the critter way out into the open. Eventually, we could see the entire body as he darted up, grabbed the morsel and quickly slid backwards into the hole. As I was describing the gopher's adaptations for a life under the ground, one of the observers spontaneously put his car keys down in place of the carrot. The gopher came up, grabbed the keys and disappeared. Whoops.

The gopher was back up in seconds, sans the keys.

Gophers, much maligned by gardeners, occupy virtually every habitat throughout the Bay Area. These busy little rodents dig, claw and bite their way through the soil, collectively creating thousands of miles of underground tunnels. The net impact is enormous.

"Gaufre," which is French for honeycomb, was the word used by early French settlers in North America for this mammal. This well describes their actions. A single pocket gopher can have 2,000 square feet of tunnels! They constantly burrow searching for food mostly succulent roots, bulbs or Swiss chard plants in your garden.

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Our resident species is the Botta Pocket gopher. The "pocket" refers to two fur-lined reversible pouches found outside the mouth on both cheeks. Essentially, these are two built-in purses for storing food. Gophers also have an extra pair of lips that actually close behind the four prominent teeth. This prevents dirt from getting down the throat. They prefer loamy soil but they are capable of gnawing their way through heavy clay. As those teeth wear down they continue to grow at the rate of a foot a year!

Gophers use their muscular chest to push the soil from their burrows up to the surface, creating the characteristic mounds. Basically a gopher is a 9-inch, buck-toothed, underground, bulldozing rat.

So what about those keys? Well, with the help of a metal detector we finally found them in a side burrow nestled safely in some chewed up carrots. As they guy pocketed his keys he sheepishly admitted that was one dumb thing to have done.

We all agreed.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist. He lives in Santa Rosa.