By: J.T. Pynne
If you say the word gopher, it usually conjures up images of the quintessential tortoise. However, there is another type of gopher in the southern half of Georgia. A secretive and angry one.
What are they?
Southeastern pocket gophers, or sandy-mounders, are small rodents that live almost entirely underground. Pocket gophers are expert diggers, creating intricate tunnel systems below the surface and obvious mounds of soil on it. It is a life they are highly adapted to, with reduced ears and small eyes, lips that close behind their teeth to prevent soil from entering their mouth, and large, front-facing digging claws. They can even use their front limbs to form their palms into a little bulldozer, which they use to push and pack soil into a plug to prevent anything from entering their tunnels.
They are called pocket gophers because they have external, fur-lined cheek pouches which they use like pockets for transporting roots to food caches.
Where can you find them?
The range of this species overlaps with the historic extent of longleaf pine, so they are adapted to plant-rich understories in open landscapes. This habitat usually has few trees, typically pines, and some sort of disturbance, including from prescribed fire or mowing. Pocket gophers’ preferred habitats often overlap with hay or other agriculture fields, so many pocket gopher species are considered pests. (More on that in a second.)
Georgia’s local southeastern pocket gophers are rarely found in agriculture fields, but they may be found in grassy yards, hay fields and rights of way, but are more typically associated with open pine systems that are consistently burned.
What role do they play in Georgia’s ecosystem?
Generally, although some people consider them agriculture pests, pocket gophers are good for the environment. They aerate soils with tunnels, turn over bare ground for new plants to sprout, help cycle nutrients through the soil and, via their tunnels, provide housing for many beneficial insects. They also promote a healthy and biodiverse ecosystem, especially when combined with prescribed fire disturbances, because they eat the roots, shoots and leaves of resilient grasses and flowering plants. Not coincidentally, prescribed fire is one of the most important management tools for promoting habitat for southeastern pocket gophers.
Unfortunately, the species is on the decline.
The range of this valuable species extends beyond Georgia into Florida and Alabama, but southeastern pocket gophers are protected in each state and their population is in decline. A team of researchers I was a part of monitored populations on several state-owned and private properties across the species’ former range and found that pocket gophers were present at only 23.2 percent of sites checked, or 41 of 177 of sites. In Georgia, we found high population densities in the western sandhills and on quail plantations in the southwestern part of the state.
Where pocket gophers are found, they can seem prolific and locally abundant. But it is challenging to determine how many individuals there are in an area because trapping is notoriously difficult. (Sometimes it can take weeks to capture one gopher.)
There’s plenty to love about this species, but it’s generally best to leave them alone whenever possible. The subterranean existence of pocket gophers makes them bold, and when exposed they can be quite aggressive.
Fierceness aside, they are uniquely adorable. They also have a slight fluorescence when exposed to ultraviolet light – as was recently discovered in flying squirrels. Because of their ecological benefits, bravado and cuteness (in that order), pocket gophers are worthy of our admiration, protection and further research.
J.T. Pynne is studying pocket gophers as a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.