By: Alyssa Nyberg, Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands
In late November, while I was jogging through the restoration plantings of Kankakee Sands, I noticed a dark blob in the white snow on one of the roadsides. That blob was not there the evening before when I drove home from work. I dreaded what it might be. Would it be a dead animal that had been hit by a car? Would it be a bag of garbage carelessly tossed from a vehicle? I sure hoped it would not be either of these. Luckily, it was just a harmless mound of dark earth pushed up through the white snow by nothing less than a pocket gopher. What a nice surprise!
Pocket gophers (Geomys bursarius) are industrious little critters, even this cold time of the year. They are mammals which continue through the winter doing what pocket gophers do: eat, dig and be merry. (I'm not really sure about that last part).
It's the fur-lined cheek pouches which give this digging and burrowing animal its intriguing name. The pouches are used to transport food to their storage areas below ground. Their diet consists of roots, stems and leaves of plants, with a preference for flowers. Pocket gophers are, in turn, a part of the diet of coyotes, weasels, badgers, hawks, owls, snakes, as well as feral cats and dogs.
As you might expect such a digging animal to have, the pocket gopher has large front paws with long claws (all the better to dig with, my dear), stretchy skin (allowing it to squeeze, squirm and turn somersaults within the tight burrows), and small eyes and ears which aren't as necessary in a relatively quiet and dark place. It also has a keen sense of smell and long sensitive whiskers that help it to navigate in the dark. A pocket gopher's lips allow it to close its mouth tightly to prevent dirt from getting in, while its four long incisor teeth which assist in digging are still exposed.
A pocket gopher's form is intricately tied to the earth. Even its colorings are of the earth. Their body is covered in short but soft fur, which does not get caked with wet soil and comes in all the shades of the soil: brown, grey and yellow.
In general, pocket gophers are solitary animals and territorial, keeping their tunnels away from those of other pocket gophers. Males do search out mates in the spring. Females give birth to litters of three to six, which stay with the female for roughly two months. Then they wander off and create their own burrowing system.
The intricate network of pocket gopher mounds dot the landscape here at Kankakee Sands. After a prescribed burn, when all the vegetation has been removed and the ground is black from the ash of the fire, the brown earth mounds of the pocket gopher stand out in striking contrast, and it's easy to see just how many mounds there are within the restoration units. The loose sandy, silty soils of our prairie restorations are an ideal digging ground for them.
And we are lucky to have them at Kankakee Sands. Pocket gophers aerate the soil, breaking down any compaction that may have happened as a result of farming or grazing. They also turn over the soil, with each mound becoming a new site for another plant to take hold. The annual plants of the prairie always have new sites for growing with the pocket gophers around.
It is estimated that a pocket gopher can move one ton of earth each year. I myself would be hard pressed to move a ton of earth in a year, and I am 5'4" tall. A pocket gopher is just a mere 8 - 10 inches in length. Ok, well you can add another 2" for the tail, but that is still just a foot long in size. The diameter of the burrow tells you much about the size of the digger: the larger the diameter, the larger the pocket gopher.
Pocket gophers can be terribly frustrating for landowners who do not like the mounds as decorations in their lawns or in their flower beds. Landowners also don't prefer to feed the pocket gophers their landscaping plants. I find myself equally frustrated at the Kankakee Sands Seed Nursery when I come into work and find that there are four mounds in the butterfly weed bed. That can only mean one thing-- the pocket gophers ate well that night.
But Kankakee Sands is just as much a home for native plants and insects as it is for the pocket gophers. They are one of the native mammals of our Indiana prairies. Currently, pocket gophers are a Species of Special Concern in Indiana, meaning that they are being closely monitored due to low population levels in the state.
In 2016, we are hoping to see a rise in the number of pocket gophers at Kankakee Sands and at other natural areas in Northwest Indiana. What a nice surprise that would be! As we enter into this new year of 2016, I wish you many interesting and pleasant surprises too.
The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. The Nature Conservancy in an international, non-profit organization. For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.