The Pocket Gopher
Nature Bulletin No. 493-A May 12, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
THE POCKET GOPHER
As you drive southwest down US Highway 66 from Chicago toward St.
Louis, low mounds of dark prairie loam begin to appear on the
roadside soon after you cross the Kankakee River. These continue to
be seen, here and there, as far as Springfield. They are made by the
Pocket Gopher, one of the more numerous but least known mammals
of central Illinois. Like the mole it is rarely seen either alive or dead
because it spends practically its entire life underground.
The name "gopher" comes from the French word gaufre meaning
waffle or honeycomb and refers to the network of passages which it
excavates, "Pocket" alludes to the fur-lined pouches opening to the
outside, one on each side of the head, in which the animal carries
roots, bulbs, and vegetation to its subterranean storerooms. The fore
paws are used to fill these pockets through folds in the skin and not
through the mouth as in the cheek pouches of the chipmunk. There are
many types of pocket gophers, all quite similar, scattered from the
prairies of Canada to Panama and from the Pacific coast to Florida.
These are the only true gophers.
The pocket gopher has a stocky body, short legs, a short neck and
powerful shoulders for digging with the long strong claws of its front
feet. Weighing less than a pound, it is a living mining machine.
Where the digging is easy it is able to tunnel as much as 200 to 300
feet in a single night. The bullet-shaped head has a pair of heavy
protruding chisel-teeth above and another pair below for tearing
through obstructions and cutting the plant materials on which it feeds.
The ears are tiny, the eyes small and weak. The whiskers on the nose
guide the gopher along its burrow when running forward; so does the
sensitive, almost naked, 3-inch tail while running backwards. The coat
of soft dark hair is not reversible as in the mole.
Instead of merely heaving up the soil over a shallow burrow like the
mole, the gopher tunnels six inches or a foot beneath the surface in its
search for food. First, a load of loosened earth is kicked backward with
the hind feet. Now, turning a somersault, it uses its fore paws and
chest like a miniature bulldozer to push it along the tunnel and out on
top of the ground. There it is spread fanwise, again and again, except
that the last few loads are used to plug the hole against hungry snakes
and weasels. A few feet farther along a new entrance is opened and the
process repeated. Where they are numerous you can walk across a field
stepping from one of these mounds to the next.
A typical burrow has a grass-lined nest chamber, several storerooms
and a series of toilets. It may be occupied by the same animal for
several years and meander over an acre of ground. These gophers play
an important role in loosening, stirring and enriching the soil but they
are a pest in the alfalfa fields and pasturelands of some western states.
Pocket gophers are unsociable. When one meets another they flight
viciously; they squeal excitedly; their teeth chatter and grind with
rage. One is often killed on the spot or bleeds to death later. Only in
the spring does the male leave his den and have a brief honeymoon in
the burrow of a female. Then he goes back home and is a hermit for
the rest of the year. One to nine young are born a month later. Until
they are 5 weeks old their eyes and ears are sealed shut but the mother
begins to bring them green food at three weeks. They stay with her
until about two months old when the family scatters and each
youngster starts his own honeycomb of tunnels.
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Update: June 2012