This piece in The Atlantic about farming gophers made me chuckle.
In short, gophers cultivate their homes in a way that encourages plant growth in bigger ways than originally thought.
Here are 3 of my favorite passages:
Of all the rodents that Elizabeth Parsons has worked with—among them, mice, rats, and squirrels galore—pocket gophers are “probably the feistiest,” she told me. Aboveground, they’ve got a bad rap for mangling gardens and golf-course greens with their characteristic sandy mounds, and when they’re provoked, they gladly put up their dukes. “They will charge you, even though you are human-sized and they are about the size of a russet potato,” Parsons, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Georgia and the Jones Center at Ichauway, said.
And that’s nothing compared with what goes on underground. The rambunctious rodents spend nearly their entire life excavating and maintaining a series of labyrinthine tunnels that can stretch several hundred feet, where fresh air is scarce and the humidity can reach 98 to 100 percent, says Veronica Selden, a biologist at the University of Florida. Apart from the initial venture that takes gophers out of their mother’s nest, the annual foray males make to mate with females in adjacent lairs, and quick surface trips to dump excess soil, gophers pretty much never leave their underground abode. They eat, sleep, defecate, procreate, and eventually die beneath the same inches of packed dirt, essentially occupying their own grave from adolescence on—all the while toiling, toiling, toiling to keep their dug-out digs in tip-top shape.
Whether gophers earn membership in this 4-H club, though, remains up for debate. Farming doesn’t even have a universal definition among humans, and the semantics only get messier when the concept is applied to other species. But if gophers are prepping soil in a way that enhances root growth, then chowing down on the plants, “you could call that cultivation,” Schultz told me. “I kind of like to think of it as proto-agriculture … as kind of a farming trait.” And that does seem to be the case, at least in the parts of the southeastern United States where Shelden and Putz did their work. Digging claws accomplish a sort of tilling, aerating the soil, “which makes it puffier and easier for plants to grow, and water to infiltrate,” Parsons said. And although some gophers set up cloistered latrines in their tunnels, others may freely scatter their scat about their home, which could give plants a fertilizing boost.