Pocket gophers… what are they and why are they called that? You may think it’s because they’re “pocket-sized” animals, but no. It’s actually because they have a special adaptation for carrying things around—fur-lined cheek pockets that extend from their mouth to their shoulders! Supposedly, they use these deluxe built-in satchels to carry food and bedding materials back into their burrow… but, seriously, you have to wonder what else they may be pocketing in there! You may hear people refer to other animals—ground squirrels, assorted rodents, voles, moles— as pocket gophers , but, no. Pocket gophers (or commonly referred to simply as “gophers”) are distinctive enough to have their own family, Geomyidae.
Pocket gophers live only in North America and Central America, occupying a range of habitats, so long as the soil can be excavated relatively easily. Their fur color varies with the soil color and their diet. In the U.S., there are 18 species of gophers, and they’re mostly found in the Midwest, the West, and southern parts of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. If you’re concerned about gophers in your yard or garden, you may be interested in learning about gopher control or pocket gopher traps. Learning a little more about these animals is actually the best first step.
Pocket gophers and their daily lives
Pocket gophers are active year round and may be out any time of day or night. One of the reasons the pocket gopher is often confused with other animals—especially moles—is the shared behaviors of living mostly below ground and creating tunnels with mounds of soil above the surface. Gopher tunnels are deeper, though—up to two feet deep—and the soil mounds gophers make are fan-shaped, rather than conical. It’s impressive that a creature only 5-9 inches long and 11-32 ounces can move the amount of soil they do in a year…. two to four tons! How is this possible? Nature didn’t just give them those nifty cheek pouches. They also got tons of special equipment to help with their daily life, which mostly consists of digging and eating. Since they spend most of their time underground, not much effort was wasted on giving them great eyesight or hearing, but here are some upgrades they did get:
- A keen sense of smell and touch (very useful below ground)
- Short, strong forelimbs (ideal for digging)
- A sturdy, flattened skull and basically no neck (good for plowing through tunnels);
- Wide feet with long sharp claws (perfect for digging)
- Perpetually growing front teeth (additional digging tools!)
- A special flap of skin that closes behind their front teeth (keeps dirt out of their mouth while digging or chewing on plant roots)
- Short, velvety fur (enables them to move easily forward or backward in their narrow tunnels)
- An unfurred tail with extra sensory capacity (tells them what’s behind them when they need to back out of a tunnel)
Pocket gopher behavior
Pocket gophers are solitary creatures who spend a lot of time in their burrow systems and a lot of effort maintaining them. They use their teeth and claws to loosen soil. Then, they somersault into the tunnels so they can turn around and push the soil they’ve loosened to the surface. Adult pocket gophers each have their own burrow, which will have a main tunnel 6-8” below the surface leading to a central nest chamber, food storage chambers, a latrine chamber, and tunnels leading to feeding areas. The chambers may be 5 or 6 feet below the surface. In winter, they also create tunnels in the snow to get around and access food. They line these snow tunnels with soil. By the way, this solves the mystery of those oddly twisting 2-4 inch tubes of soil you may have encountered on the ground in spring—after the snowmelt, the soil linings of their tunnels remain. People refer to these as “gopher garlands” or “gopher cores.”
So, what are gophers storing in these underground food caches? Mostly grasses and forbs. They’re active all winter, foraging in their tunnels for roots, tubers, and bulbs. If you’ve ever seen a whole dandelion plant disappear into the ground, you’re watching a gopher below ground eat the plant from the roots on up, pulling it into his tunnel as he munches. They also forage above ground, but usually carry their food back underground to eat in the privacy and safety of their burrow. They also like to close their burrow opening behind them. If the closure is disturbed, they rush to close it up. Their predators have learned to exploit this habit, disturbing the burrow opening on purpose so they can ambush the unsuspecting gopher as he focuses on closing the “door” to his home.
Pocket gophers and their young
Unfortunately, not a lot is known about pocket gophers as parents—partly due to their tendency to stay below ground, and partly because the focus that has been, instead, placed on gopher control. Generally, though, we know that they tend to have one litter each breeding season in the northern part of their range, and two litters in the south. Gestation runs about 30 days, and they may have from 1-13 young, but most typically 3-5. For several weeks, the young stay below ground, protected and fed by their mothers. Thereafter, however, mom expels them from the burrow and they must find a site and excavate their own burrow. Perhaps the brief period of care is partly a reflection of this species’ preference for solitary living. But the young are fully capable of managing on their own at that point, because pocket gophers can flourish in a range of habitats.
Pocket gophers and your yard
One place you may not be excited to see pocket gophers flourishing is in your yard, as they can cause you a bit of grief with your lawn or gardens. That doesn’t mean you need to resort to looking for pocket gopher traps. Before we get to preferable suggestions, though, it’s worth noting that pocket gophers are not transmitters of disease to humans. They also deserve credit for performing several worthy deeds while digging their tunnels:
- They aerate the soil;
- They increase water penetration into the soil, which helps plants;
- They promote early successional plants;
- They enhance plant diversity and community structure; and
- Their abandoned burrows provide shelter to other animals.
Nonetheless, if pocket gophers are causing you more than a pocketful of troubles and you want to move them along, here are some things to try:
- In agricultural settings, you may want to try planting a different crop, rotating crops, or using flood irrigation, all of which will make the habitat less appealing to pocket gophers, thus reducing the need for intervention.
- In residential settings, consider trenching along your fences (about 4-6” above the surface) using fabric barriers to minimize their incursion onto your property.
- Encourage natural predators to help keep a better natural balance by providing artificial perches for raptors and being more tolerant of foxes and coyotes.
- If you’re in a new development, try patience, as your pocket gopher “problem” may be only temporary. Many will perish from the disruption to the habitat, and others will likely move elsewhere.
- If you’re concerned about damage to underground cables, these may be protected within 3”-diameter PVC or laid within a trench of coarse gravel.
There are no registered commercial repellents for pocket gophers, and those intended for other animals are unlikely to work, especially as they would have to reach the pocket gophers far beneath the surface.
As with all wildlife conflicts, try to keep in mind the full story for the species in question. Rarely is there a situation where nothing good is coming from an animal’s presence in your yard or community, so try to find a balance in how you resolve any conflicts. After all, the gophers you good-naturedly tolerate today may well be busy improving the soil for your flower or veggie garden next season!