Gophers: Gardeners of the Grassland

May 3, 2017 at 1:29 pm
By Callen Inman

PlainsPocketGopher
Have you ever wondered what forces make the tallgrass prairies in the Arb and McKnight Prairie such rich, biodiverse ecosystems, teeming with grassland plants, insects, and birds? Well, one answer might lie beneath your feet. Much of what you see aboveground is directly influenced by a number of unseen organisms beneath the surface, chief among these a bizarre, soil-colored creature that lives its life in darkness, guided mostly by its nose. Equipped with yellow incisors and formidable claws, working through the soil comes naturally to the Plains Pocket Gopher. In the Gopher’s search for roots, tubers, and sometimes whole plants, this ghostly gardener of the grassland changes the nature of the soil and of the ecosystem as a whole.

So much digging aerates the soil, making it more friable and more conducive to plant growth. “Pocket gophered” soil is easier for plants to grow in, and easier for other burrowing animals, as well as the Pocket Gopher itself, to dig and move through. As the gophers excavate, they redistribute rich organic matter, supporting vital nutrient cycling processes by moving carbon, nitrogen, and microorganisms through the soil. In the Arb, you might notice pocket gopher mounds, areas where gopher activity has been so heavy that they are now mostly grassless.

 By “destructively” clearing sections of prairie either through foraging or mound-building, pocket gophers actually prepare the landscape for a different crop of prairie plants. Outcompeted or unsuited to grow in the typically rich, black earth of the prairie, such plants may thrive on the poorer soils which pocket gopher mounds bring to the surface. Pocket gophers’ “destructive” work habits also lessen competition for resources and overcrowding among plants, providing them more access to sunlight and increasing community diversity by keeping grass height and density uneven. Overall, gophers support a mosaic of different plant communities and soil types, which in turn, will support a wide range of consumers.

Additionally, gopher burrows themselves often provide homes for mice, voles, and insects, which are important seed harvesters, pollinators, and food for prairie birds. Long after the gophers are gone, ground squirrels and even foxes and badgers may make these burrows their homes, taking advantage of the gopher’s architectural skill. The human Arb managers may have worked extensively to bring the original tallgrass prairie back to life in all its diversity and beauty, but these strange rodent managers help ensure that it exists for years to come.

Callen Inman ‘19, writing for the Cole Student Naturalists

Photo credit: On page- courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Teaser- Berett Wilber '14
Teaser photo is of Student Naturalists examining gopher holes.

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