Pocket gophers certainly don’t qualify for card-carrying 4-H membership, but rodents may farm in the open air in their moist, nutrient-rich tunnels.
Gophers live primarily on the roots they encounter in tunnels dug by rodents.But local topography doesn’t always provide enough roots to sustain gophers, two researchers report July 11 Current Biology. To cover the deficit, Gophers engage in a simple form of farming University of Florida, Gainesville ecologist Jack Putz and his former zoology undergraduate Veronica Selden suggest creating conditions that promote root growth.
But some scientists think it’s a stretch to call rodent activity agriculture. Rather than actively ploughing the soil, the gophers inadvertently altered their environment as the rodents fed and pooped — as all animals do, the researchers said.
Tunneling requires a lot of energy—up to 3,400 times as much as a gopher does walking on the surface. To understand how these critters get all this energy, Selden and Putz began investigating the tunnels of the southeast pocket gophers in 2021 (Turtle) in Florida, which is partly owned by Poots, is restoring areas of longleaf savanna.
The pair took root samples from soil near 12 gopher tunnels and deduced how much root mass the gophers would encounter when digging a one-meter-long tunnel. The researchers then calculated how much energy these roots would provide.
“We were able to compare energy costs to benefits and found that on average there was a deficit, with about half of the cost of excavation unaccounted for,” Selden said.
After examining some of the tunnels, Selden and Putz saw gopher droppings creeping inside, along with small bites that had been bitten from the roots and signs of soil churning.
These gophers provide conditions conducive to root growth by spreading their waste as fertilizer, aerating the soil and repeatedly nibbling on roots to encourage new germination, the researchers concluded.
“All of these activities promote root growth, and once the roots have grown into the tunnel, the gophers will plant the roots,” Selden said. It amounts to a basic form of agriculture, she and Putz said. If so, gophers would be the first non-human mammals to be recognized as farmers, Putz said. other creatures, like some insectsalso farm food, and started doing so earlier than humans (SN: 4/23/20).
But the study has its skeptics. “I really don’t think you can call it agriculture by the human definition. All herbivores eat plants and everyone poops,” said JT, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Wildlife Federation in Covington. Pynne said he studies southeastern kangaroos. So gnawing on roots and tunneling poop might not be a sign of agriculture, just gophers doing what all animals do.
Evolutionary biologist Ulrich Müller agrees. “If we accept the paltry evidence presented in Selden’s article as evidence of farming…then most mammals and most birds are farmers, because each of them unexpectedly regards them as Some of the plants we eat have some beneficial effects,” he said.
Not only that, but the research is dangerous, says Mueller of the University of Texas at Austin. He said the public would see through the “shallowness of the data” and conclude that science “is just a bunch of storytelling stuff that undermines general trust in science”.
For her part, Selden said she understands that because gophers don’t grow crops, not everyone wants to call them farmers. Still, she argues, “The conditions that make gophers farmers and distinguish them from cattle, such as cattle, which occasionally fertilize the grass they eat with their excrement, are the ideal for gophers to nurture and maintain this ideal. root growth environment.”
At the very least, Putz said, he hopes their research will make people kinder to rodents. “If you type ‘pocket gophers’ online, you’ll find more ways to kill them than you might think.”