Plains Pocket Gopher

Geomys bursarius (Shaw)

 Color photo by Robert M. Timm.
Copyright 1999.   All rights reserved.

Description:   The plains pocket gopher can be distinguished from its only Kansas relative, the yellow-faced pocket gopher, by the presence of two parallel grooves (rather than one) on the front surface of its large protruding orange incisor teeth. It has a broad flat head, compact body, short snout, and nearly hairless tail that is used as a sensory organ. The upperparts are light to dark brown. The underparts are dull buffy. The hair is short, dense, and glossy, and the skin is rather loose. Skin and hairs are arranged so as to permit flexibility when the animal moves forward or backward in its subterranean tunnels. The tail is brownish with a white tip. The eyes and ears are small. Large external cheek pouches, used for carrying food, are lined with fur and extend back to the shoulders. The front legs are short, strong, and bear heavy claws on all five toes. The edges of the toes are fringed with hairs that assist in digging and handling dirt. Males are larger than females, but they are colored alike. Young are grayer than adults.

Size:   Adult females may attain the following dimensions: total length 230-316 mm; tail 63-102 mm; hind foot 30-39 mm; ear 4-9 mm; weight 170-305 grams; males are somewhat larger.

Range and Habitat:   The plains pocket gopher lives throughout Kansas with the exception of the southeastern corner of the state. It prefers deep sandy and loamy soil in treeless open lands. The five subspecies in Kansas are: Geomys bursarius lutescens in the northwest; Geomys bursarius bursarius in the northeast; Geomys bursarius jugossicularis in the extreme southwest; Geomys bursarius industrius in the southwest more generally; and Geomys bursarius major in the southcentral part of the state.

Reproduction:   The plains pocket gopher breeds from February to April and, after a gestation presumed to be a month or more, one to six (average four) young are born hairless, pink, wrinkled, and with eyes and ears closed. In five weeks the cheek pouches and eyes of the young open and a week later they are weaned. When half grown, they disperse and begin to forage alone. They reach sexual maturity at one year. The female has three pairs of nipples.

 Color photo by Robert M. Timm.
Copyright 1999.   All rights reserved.

Habits:   The plains pocket gopher is more highly specialized for digging than any other North American rodent and lives underground for practically its entire life. Although rarely seen, its presence can be determined by piles of fresh dirt pushed to the surface and arranged in a somewhat linear fashion in open fields. These mounds of soil lead to sloping subterranean tunnels that connect to a main tunnel that traverses the entire set of mounds. The lateral tunnels are superficial, and are generally only 150-250 mm below the surface. The main tunnel is generally deeper in the area of the nest chamber; it is usually below the frost line. In addition to the nesting chamber there are special tunnels for food storage and for the deposit of fecal material. The tunnels are excavated using the large claws of the front feet. After sufficient dirt has accumulated the gopher turns around and pushes the dirt with front feet, head, and chest to a surface opening where it piles the dirt. Plains pocket gophers are solitary except during breeding periods and rarely leave the tunnel except for breeding or for foraging near the entrance of a tunnel, where they sometimes can be seen. Abandoned tunnels make excellent retreats for many kinds of small vertebrates and invertebrates. The plains pocket gopher does not hibernate.

Food:   The food of plains pocket gophers is entirely vegetable matter consisting of grasses and forbs, roots and underground stems. Green plants and grasses are taken from around the entrance of their tunnels and perhaps beyond, at night. The plains pocket gopher is especially fond of alfalfa fields, and can become a nuisance. Their earth mounds can damage the sickle bars of mowing machines.

Remarks:   Predators of the plains pocket gopher are those that can gain entrance to the tunnels such as weasels and snakes, or those capable of digging into the ground like badgers, foxes, and coyotes. Owls and hawks may prey upon this gopher if it leaves the security of its burrow system. Maximum longevity of this mammal is generally less than five years. The action of gophers in the soil are beneficial for both plant and animal communities. Gophers mix and deepen soils just as effectively as if the fields were plowed, although considerably slower than by human methods. Gopher mounds cover surface vegetation, thus incorporating sometimes over 50 percent of surface plant material into the soil. By-products of the gopher and unconsumed plant material enhances the fertility of the soil. Their tunnels permit deeper penetration of air and water into the soil. The tunnels also collect runoff of early melting snows and rain storms.

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