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Small but mighty: Pocket gophers pack a punch, despite shrinking habitat

Researchers’ work aims to spread the word about underground mammal

 

Sure, they are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and look up at you with their beady black eyes.

But they won’t. In fact, pocket gophers will fight like the dickens to get out of your hand and back into the ground, using every millimeter of their front claws and hooked teeth along the way.

JT Pynne holds a pocket gopherThey’ve been called the “belligerent sausages” of the animal world, which makes perfect sense. Pocket gophers are solitary, full of anxiety and are ready to fight at a moment’s notice. But despite their short temper, they are also an important neighbor across South Georgia, Florida and a portion of Alabama, where they serve as “nature’s rototillers” and contribute to important ecosystems and plant life.

This is why J.T. Pynne, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, has been tracking where pocket gophers are—and aren’t—over the past few years. Their habitat has shrunk, fragmented by development and agricultural uses. But with some awareness and changes in management practices, these tiny, ferocious critters can continue to have a beneficial presence across the Southeast.

As long as you don’t try to pick them up.

“They’re important for ecological services that we don’t fully understand but know they are important,” says Pynne, who has been studying small mammals and rodents throughout his graduate school career. “But also, they’re pound-for-pound the hardest-fighting animal I’ve ever experienced.”

At first glance, the pocket gopher looks pretty harmless­—if you can get it to stay still that long. They are a few inches long when fully grown and live alone in a burrow, except in mating season. But because they’re not used to being above ground, they instantly go into attack mode if caught and handled. Their long, curved teeth and sharp claws are designed for digging, which is exactly what they do, with great speed, as soon as they come in contact with the ground.

(And despite their small size, their name isn’t a reference to a place where you can carry them; rather, they have external, fur-lined cheek pouches used like pockets to carry food. The animals’ lips close behind their large front teeth, allowing them to chew on roots without getting soil in their mouth, and the fur in the pockets helps keep soil from sticking.)

Pocket gophers are typically found in sandy soils, and when underground they munch on the roots of a variety of plants. Their typical habitat is open pine forests, where they provide a valuable service by keeping the ground soft and pliable for a variety of plants to thrive. But they can also be found in hay fields—much to the chagrin of farmers, who discover pocket gophers as their tractor drives over the animals’ telltale sandy piles of dirt.

Still, their solitary nature and need to dig means they don’t disperse very well. And as land changes from forests to more intense uses, it makes pocket gopher survival difficult.

“There’s basically these little metapopulations of them and the metapopulations can’t interact because they don’t disperse very well,” says Pynne. “So, that’s their main issue—they’ve been affected by all this fragmented habitat.”

With the research done by Pynne and Warnell professor Steven Castleberry, Pynne’s advisor, they are hoping to not only learn more about this small, solitary creature, but also offer guidance to landowners who might have a place for them.

Castleberry said the key to pocket gophers’ success is in moderation. While commercial forestry or golf course communities aren’t very compatible with pocket gopher habitats, other types of land uses might be able to carve out some areas where the animals can thrive.

They don’t need much space and prefer to be left alone, says Castleberry, which makes them perfect candidates for areas set aside for wildlife habitat, whether it’s part of a large-scale timber stand or a family owned forest.

“It’s striking a balance between areas that are managed versus areas that are managed for pocket gophers and other wildlife” says Castleberry, who is working with Pynne to analyze the latest results of a study that tracked relocated pocket gophers. “We looked at translocation—if you have an area that’s suitable, can you put gophers there? For example, maybe someone has them on a golf course. We can go catch them and move them to a more suitable place.”

Except, one result of the study was immediately apparent, he adds: “They are really hard to catch.”

Gopher woundIt takes some dedication to study such a small, angry creature for several years. Pynne points to a red divot on the back side of his hand, where a frustrated pocket gopher’s front teeth bit straight through his protective leather glove.

Yet, despite the danger, Pynne remains undeterred.

“Since they live underground, they don’t know many predators. So, when they are above ground, their objective is to turn around and fight,” he says. “They’re hilariously tiny; I read a description in a 1982 paper in The Florida Naturalist calling them homely, belligerent sausages. It’s never been a more apt description of any animal.”

 

Pocket gopher burrows

 

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