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Journey with Nature

Plains Pocket Gophers

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A long time ago (20 years), in a place far, far away (Frankton, Indiana), students began collecting pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters to raise money for the Conservancy’s Adopt an Acre program. Watch this fun video to learn about their amazing success!

 

The Plains Pocket Gopher is the kind of rodent that prefers life underground - a situation for which it is well-suited. Its small eyes, tiny external ears, powerful front legs for burrowing and long claws for digging provide them the perfect tools to live beneath the soil.

However, it is the mouth of the gopher that holds its best instruments. Large incised teeth are just as good for tearing into vegetation as they are for digging the gopher's deep tunnel systems. Close behind the incisors are the lips which allow them to dig with their teeth without getting soil in its mouth. With all the mouth-digging, how, exactly, does a gopher eat without consuming a bunch of soil? A clue is in its name.

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The Plain pocket gopher is named for the large external, fur-lined pouches in both cheeks. The cheek pouches are filled rapidly with the forepaws, using a wiping motion that forces the food into the open end of the mouth. Food is transported in these pouches, and what is not eaten is stored in caches in the burrow system.

The gopher's tunnel systems can extend in all directions and measure up to several hundred feet long. The telltale signs of their presence are the sandy mounds created on the surface as the gopher excavates dirt from the tunnel. Though viewed by some as eyesores on their pristine lawns, gopher tunnels are quite beneficial. Their burrowing not only increases soil aeration and water infiltration, but reduces soil compaction as well.

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Though many people may not appreciate all this hard work, the plains pocket gopher is a species of special concern in Indiana and is protected by law. The Department of Natural Resources would appreciate being contacted before any attempts are made to eradicate these rodents from your yard. The Wildlife Conflicts Information Hotline can also be helpful. 

Interesting & Fun Facts about Plains Pocket Gophers
  • The Plains Pocket Gopher's coloring is anywhere from a sandy brown to rich chocolate. Their fur generally matches the color of the soil they inhabit - which are usually sandy or silty soils.
  • Unlike the greater number of burrowing mammals which spend much of their time above ground searching for food, the pocket gopher rarely comes out on the surface.
  • Gophers like to feed on the roots, stems and leaves of various plants. While they do eat grasses, they prefer forbs - herbaceous, flowering plants - such as alfalfa, dandelion and prickly pear cactus.
  • When stocking food, the Plains Pocket Gopher empties its pouches by bringing both forefeet to its cheeks to force out the food.
  • Gophers are just as fast running backwards as they are forwards in their underground tunnel systems. 
  • When backing up in their burrow, gophers use their tails as a kind of feeler to find their way.
  • Gophers are natural gymnasts; their loose skin allows them to do somersaults in their tunnels if in need of a quick getaway.
  • Plain Pocket Gophers are solitary creatures. Males will only seek out females during the mating season, and when over, will return to live its life on its own. Both sexes are also territorial and do their best to keep their burrows a good distance from others.

Information gathered from the Illinois State Museum, South Dakota Department of Agriculture and eNature Nature Guide.  More information found at the Animal Diversity Web.

Where to Find Them in IN

Though some Hoosiers may find them in their yards, pocket gophers are usually seen in the northwest and prefer prairie habitats if available.The Conservancy's Kankakee Sands is home to a number of rare & threatened species, including the plains pocket gopher. You can also find these little critters on the NIPSCO Savanna and Tefft Savanna Complex preserves. A visit to the trails may offer you a glimpse of these toothy creatures.


Plains Pocket Gopher Quick Facts
  • Scientific name: Geomys bursarius
  • Size: as tall as one foot; as much as one pound for adults
  • Coloring: sandy to chocolate brown fur, depending on location
  • Habitat: open to sparse forests; prefer sandy and silty soils
  • Diet: herbivore; roots, stems & leaves of various plants
  • Predators: preyed upon by coyotes, weasels, hawks, owls and snakes
  • Behavioir: solitary & territorial; interacts with others during mating season alone
  • Reproduction: mating begins very early spring, 1 - 3 per litter; born April-June; offpsring leaves after 2 months

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