Unlike a pocket watch or a pocket dictionary, pocket gophers are so-named because of their large cheek pouches which, starting at the side of the mouth and going right back onto the shoulders, are lined with fur, open from the outside rather than into the mouth, and can be turned inside out for cleaning. There are some 35 species of gopher in North and Central America and they appear over a wide range of habitats, from mountains down to sea level. The simple name ‘gopher’ is also used for these animals, but since it’s often applied to ground squirrels and other diverse species as well, the more specific ‘pocket gopher’ is used here.
Pocket gophers live in prairies, but they are especially partial to places where the soil is easy to dig through so they also find their way into farms, vegetable gardens and lawns where they are usually less than welcome. They spend a great deal of their lives underground, tunnelling. They create vast networks and on the one hand destroy cultivated plants but on the other hand turn the soil over and favour the growth of colonising plants after forest fires or construction. Their larders, to which they carry food in their pouches, can produce deep fertilisation of the soil when the contents eventually decompose. But a well-stocked larder is vital to pocket gophers because they don’t hibernate and so have to live off their stores right through the winter.
Pocket gophers are well adapted for tunnelling. They have strong front legs with sharp claws, and when they use their large teeth for digging, they can keep their lips closed so that the soil doesn’t go in their mouths. Their eyes are also suited, having tear glands which work continuously, flushing the soil out, and they can close up their ears to keep the soil out, too.
The male pocket gopher is considerably larger than the female, whose size can begin at 4 inches not counting the short, furry tail which is used for feeling around tunnels when walking backwards. Pocket gophers live alone in their own tunnel system, aggressively defending it from others of the species, except when breeding. Then the female invites the male into her burrow for mating, after which he leaves and she raises the litter on her own. The female has no trouble finding a mate because there are usually a large number of burrows close to each other.
Although pocket gophers always try to run away when under threat, they are also prepared to attack creatures larger than themselves if necessary – cats, for example, and even humans. Their teeth can inflict a nasty bite.
The foods preferred by pocket gophers are moist: carrots, lettuce, radishes – any vegetable with juice in it. But their diet also includes grain. During the day at least, they remain underground, tunnelling towards roots which they eat, afterwards pulling the rest of the plant down through the soil. These feeding tunnels are shallow, while the tunnels in which they sleep, nest and store food are deeper plus usually closed off at the end, only being visible from the surface as earth fanning out from where the entrance would be.
Foxes and coyotes sometimes dig up the burrows, but pocket gopher are clever at escaping by running backwards through the tunnels. Snakes are also a threat, and owls when the gopher comes out at night. The greatest danger, however, is naturally humans, and especially cultivators of vegetables who see their crops disappear, pulled through the soil like magic. Aeration of the soil is only seen as a marginal benefit in such situations.