Pocket gophers, commonly referred to as gophers, are burrowing rodents of the family Geomyidae. There are approximately 35 species of gopher living in Central and North America. They are commonly known for their extensive tunneling activities. Gophers are endemic to North and Central America.
The name "pocket gopher" on its own may be used to refer to any of a number of genera within the family. These are the "true" gophers; however there are several ground squirrels of the family Sciuridae that are often mistakenly called gophers as well.
Gophers weigh around 0.5 pounds (230 g), and are about 6–8 inches (150–200 mm) long in body length, with a tail 1–2 inches (25–51 mm) long. A few species reach weights approaching 1 kg (2.2 lb). Within any species, the males are larger than the females and can be nearly double their weight.
Their lifespan is normally one to three years assuming no diseases or predation. The maximum life span for the pocket gopher is approximately five years. Some gophers, such as those in the genus geomys, have lifespans that have been documented as up to seven years in the wild.
Most gophers have brown fur that often closely matches the color of the soil in which they live. Their most characteristic features are their large cheek pouches, from which the word "pocket" in their name derives. These pouches are fur-lined, and can be turned inside out. They extend from the side of the mouth well back onto the shoulders. They have small eyes and a short, hairy tail, which they use to feel around tunnels when they walk backwards.
All pocket gophers create a network of tunnel systems that provide protection and a means of collecting food. They are larder hoarders, and their cheek pouches are used for transporting food back to their burrows. Gophers can collect large hoards. Unlike its close relative the ground squirrel, gophers do not live in large communities and seldom find themselves above ground.
The entrances can be identified by small piles of loose dirt covering the opening. Their burrows can be found in many areas where the soil is softer and easily tunneled. They will often appear in vegetable gardens, lawns, or farms, as gophers like moist soil (see Soil biomantle). This has led to their frequent treatment as pests.
Gophers eat earthworms, grubs, plant roots, shrubs and other vegetables such as carrots, lettuce, radishes, and any other vegetables with juice. Some species are considered agricultural pests. The resulting destruction of plant life will then leave the area a stretch of denuded dirt.
Pocket gophers are solitary outside of the breeding season, aggressively maintaining territories that vary in size depending on the resources available. Males and females may share some burrows and nesting chambers if their territories border each other, but in general, each pocket gopher inhabits its own individual tunnel system. Although they will attempt to flee when threatened, they may attack other animals, including cats and humans, and can inflict serious bites with their long, sharp teeth.
Depending on the species and local conditions, pocket gophers may have a specific annual breeding season, or may breed repeatedly through the year. Each litter typically consists of two to five young, although this may be much higher in some species. The young are born blind and helpless, and are weaned at around forty days.
Most pocket gopher species are relatively common and not of conservation concern. The desert pocket gopher is the most threatened species, because it occupies a very small range and is thus more vulnerable to habitat loss.
There has been much debate among taxonomists about which races of pocket gopher should be recognised as full species, and the following list cannot be regarded as definitive.
- Family Geomyidae
- Genus Cratogeomys; some authors treat this genus as a subgenus of Pappogeomys.
- Genus Geomys - eastern pocket gophers; principally found in the south-western United States, east of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
- Geomys arenarius; two subspecies, the desert and White Sands pocket gophers
- Attwater's pocket gopher (G. attwateri)
- Plains pocket gopher (G. bursarius); two subspecies
- Knox Jones's pocket gopher (G. knoxjonesi)
- Geomys personatus; 5 subspecies including the Texas, Davis, maritime and Carrizo Springs pocket gophers
- Geomys pinetis; 4 subspecies, the southeastern, Cumberland Island, Sherman's and Goff's pocket gophers
- Geomys texensis; 2 subspecies, including the llano pocket gopher
- Genus Orthogeomys - giant pocket gophers or taltuzas; found in Mexico, Central America and Colombia.
- Chiriqui pocket gopher (Orthogeomys cavator)
- Cherrie's pocket gopher (O. cherriei)
- Oaxacan pocket gopher (O. cuniculus)
- Darien pocket gopher (O. dariensis)
- Giant pocket gopher (O. grandis)
- Variable pocket gopher (O. heterodus)
- Hispid pocket gopher (O. hispidus)
- Big pocket gopher (O. lanius)
- Nicaraguan pocket gopher (O. matagalpae)
- Thaeler's pocket gopher (O. thaeleri)
- Underwood's pocket gopher (O. underwoodi)
- Genus Pappogeomys; found in Mexico.
- Genus Thomomys - western pocket gophers; widely distributed in North America, extending into the northwestern US, Canada and the southeastern US.
- Thomomys bottae; many subspecies, including Botta's, Fish Spring, Bonneville, Clear Lake, San Antonio, Pistol River, Mount Ellen, Guadalupe, Limpia, Mearns', Stansbury Island, Antelope Island, Cebolleta, Salinas, Skull Valley, Swasey Springs, Harquahala and Limpia Greek pocket gophers.
- Camas pocket gopher (T. bulbivorus)
- Wyoming pocket gopher (T. clusius)
- Idaho pocket gopher (T. idahoensis)
- Mazama pocket gopher (T. mazama); several subspecies including the western, Gold Beach, Olympic, and Tacoma pocket gophers.
- Mountain pocket gopher (T. monticola)
- Northern pocket gopher (T. talpoides); very widely distributed; several subspecies including the Cheyenne northern pocket gopher
- Townsend's pocket gopher (T. townsendii)
- Southern pocket gopher (T. umbrinus)
- Genus Zygogeomys
In popular culture
Minnesota is nicknamed "the Gopher State", and the University of Minnesota's athletics teams are collectively known as the Golden Gophers, led by mascot Goldy Gopher. Gainer the Gopher is the mascot of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League. A gopher also plays a key role in the film Caddyshack.
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