Gophers are well adapted to digging, with strong, large forearms and sharp claws. They have yellowish gnawing teeth that can keep digging even when their lips are closed, an aid in keeping the dirt out of their mouths while they dig. Also, they have special tear glands that continuously clean their eyes as they dig. Their ears can be closed against the dirt.
Gophers spend most of their lives underground. They dig shallow feeding tunnels that allow them to make their way to the juicy roots and tubers of crops and gardens. They also dig deeper tunnels in which they nest, rest, and store food. Their living tunnels are usually blocked at the end and are not noticeable from above except for a fan of earth that spreads out from where the opening would be. This fan may be as much as 6 in (15 cm) high.
These rodents do not hibernate, so their food stored during the summer must last them through the winter. They bring plant stems into their burrows in one of two ways. If remaining underground, they can eat the roots and then pull the plant stem down through the soil and carry it into their burrow. However, sometimes they go outside at night. Then they bite off plant stems and drag them back to their burrows. They also collect food in their cheek pouches. These externally opening pouches can be turned inside out for cleaning, after which a muscle pulls them back right-side-out again.
Gopher burrows do not support colonies of gophers. They are solitary animals, although so many of them can live so close to each other that they may seem to an observer to be part of a colony. This closeness allows them readily to find mates. A female takes a male into her own burrow for mating. He leaves and she remains to raise her litter. A female gives birth to four or five young usually only once each year, although some breed twice a year. The young are weaned and out on their own, digging their own burrows, within a month or two. Gophers rarely live more than two years.
When gophers are out of their burrows at night, they readily fall prey to owls and snakes. Their burrows may be dug up by foxes and coyotes. However, these small diggers may still be safe because they have the ability to run backward in their burrows almost as fast as they can move forward. Their sensitive tails are used in determining their direction.
Farmers tend to kill gophers because of the way they can destroy crops from the roots up. However, burrowing gophers keep the soil aerated and well-turned.
The southeastern pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis) of Florida, and coastal Georgia and Alabama is threatened with extinction. Its habitat has fallen prey to development.
See also Chipmunks.
Caras, Roger A. North American Mammals: Fur-Bearing Animals of the United States and Canada. New York: Meredith Press, 1967.
Knight, Linsay. The Sierra Club Book of Small Mammals. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books for Children, 1993.
Jean F. Blashfield