Gophers are small, herbivorous rodents. They
are rat-sized, but somewhat more rotund
than rats. They form the families Geomyidae and
Thomomyini, which have eight genera, thirty-five
species, and hundreds of subspecies. Gophers
burrow in the ground and do not leave their burrows
during daylight hours. Different species are
found in deserts, shrublands, and grasslands
across much of North and Central America, from
central and southwestwern Canada through the
western and southeastern United States, Mexico
and south to the Panama-Colombia border.
Striped gophers (Citellu tridecemlineatus, prairie
squirrels), which have thirteen body stripes,
live fromthe western plains of the United States to
Panama. Camas rats (Thomomys bulbivorus) are the
largest gophers, reaching body lengths of over
one foot. Plains pocket gophers (Geomys bursarius)
are dark brown, and common in the Mississippi
French settlers in North America first noticed
that gopher burrows honeycombed the soil and
named them gaufres (French for "honeycomb").
These animals all have pouches (pockets) in their
cheeks, and are more correctly called pocket gophers
(pouched rats). Pocket gophers are divided
into twenty-six Geomyini species and nine Thomomyini
species. The main gopher types include
eastern pocket gophers, yellow pocket gophers,
and western pocket gophers.
Physical Characteristics of Gophers
Gophers are plump, ratlike rodents, up to 1.25 feet long and covered with soft, short, black and red-brown to gray fur. All have whiskers, to help them navigate underground and at night, and two large, fur-lined pockets, one in each cheek. These pockets, used to carry food, lead to the name pocket gopher. The pockets are lined with fur, and a gopher can turn them inside out to clean them. Gophers have wide, blunt heads, with underdeveloped ears and eyes. Their incisors are large and well designed for gnawing. Gophers have short limbs and feet with powerful claws, longer on the forefeet. They dig tunnels with the claws of the front feet. Their thick, almost hairless tails, about three inches long, are sensitive tactile organs, used to help them find their way around their tunnels when moving backward. Gophers are able to run backward about as quickly as forward. Their body lengths range from 4.5 to 17 inches, and they weigh between 0.75 and 2 pounds.
Gophers eat leaves, grass, roots, nuts, tubers, buds, and farm vegetables. Their main foods, garnered in their tunnels, are roots and tubers. The other foods are gathered on nocturnal surface forays. They need water to survive, but when water is scarce in arid regions, they eat cacti to obtain it. The gophers store most of their food in the tunnels and chambers of their burrows. They carry the food to their burrows in their cheek pouches. Gophers are solitary and males are territorial. They come together only to breed. Female gophers can have one or several litters each year. They birth two to ten young, depending on the species. Gestation is about three weeks. The young are totally dependent on their mothers at birth, weaned after a month, and have their own tunnels by age three to four months. Pocket gophers have life spans of one to seven years.
Western Pocket Gophers
Western pocket gophers-like other gophers- have small, round bodies. They are tan to gray and live in deserts, meadows, and farmlands in Canada, the southwest United States, Mexico, and Central America. They like areas where the soil is easy to dig. These gophers eat plant leaves and underground roots and tubers. In dry areas, they eat cacti to obtain water. They travel on the surface at night, seeking and cutting through underground roots with sharp incisors.Western pocket gophers carry their food in their cheek pouches. They are territorial, and a given male's territory may be up to one thousand square feet. Western pocket gophers can breed up to four times a year, once during each season of the year. Gestation is approximately three weeks, and young, born completely dependent on their mothers, develop their own burrows and territories within three months. These gophers live for four years in the wild and seven years in captivity. Gophers are very destructive when they tunnel in farmland such as meadows, farms, and orchards. The tunnels are identified by the mounds of earth left along their courses. Very voracious, gophers eat all vegetation they find underground. They destroy food trees, tuber crops, and flower crops by gnawing roots, tubers, and bulbs.
Order: Rodentia (rodents)
Family: Geomyidae (gophers)
Tribes: Geomyini (four genera, twenty-five species); Thomomyini (one genus, nine species) Geographical location: North and Central America, from central and southwestern Canada, western and southeastern United States, Mexico, and south to the Panama-Colombia border
Habitat: Deserts, shrubby land, grasslands, agricultural areas, and tropical lowlands
Gestational period: About three weeks
Life span: Up to four years in the wild; up to six years in captivity
Special anatomy: Fur-lined pockets in cheeks, whiskers, strong incisor teeth, front claws for digging, tactile tails
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