There were fifteen of us standing around in a circle staring down at the ground. Occasionally cheers would erupt as I attempted to entice a gopher out of his hole. The audience was mostly teachers and naturalists taking my class, “Natural History for Educators”, at the Point Reyes National Seashore. If there is a single mammal likely to be encountered (though maybe not seen) in a school yard or during a casual stroll through any park, it is the gopher.
By placing pieces of a carrot farther and farther from his hole, I had managed to gradually lure the gopher out into the open. Eventually we were able to see the entire body as he darted up, grabbed the morsel and quickly slid backwards into its hole. As I was describing the gopher’s adaptations for a life under the ground, one of the participants spontaneously put his car keys down in place of the carrot. The gopher came up, grabbed the keys and disappeared. Whoops.
The gopher was back up in seconds, without the keys. The look on the man’s face was priceless…..”the stupidest thing I ever did….”. Our raucous laughter was soon replaced by concern. How could we get the keys back out of the gopher’s hole?
Gophers occupy virtually every habitat throughout the western and central United States. They are mostly missing east of the Mississippi. These busy little rodents dig, claw and bite their way through the soil, collectively creating thousands of miles of underground tunnels. The net impact is enormous and not always detrimental to human interests. Dr. Grinnel, the well‑known University of California biologist, once said that the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley owe their rich agricultural lands to the diggings of mountain pocket gophers high up in the Sierra Nevada. Gophers have speeded up the revegetation of Mt. St. Helens. In some areas gophers were not killed by the volcanic eruption but survived the heat blast because they were underground. When the dust cleared, the gophers roto‑tilled the ash into the soil and their stockpiled seeds germinated and helped to restore the native vegetation. The CCC couldn’t have done any better.
Our resident species and the one found throughout most of California is the Botta Pocket Gopher, Thomomys bottae. The “pocket” refers to two fur‑lined reversible pouches found outside the mouth on both cheeks. Essentially these are two built‑in purses for storing food. The gopher’s lips close behind the four prominent front teeth; this prevents dirt from getting down the throat. Gophers prefer loamy soil but they are capable of gnawing their way through heavy clay with their incisors. As the teeth wear out they continue to grow at the rate of a foot a year! Gophers use their chest to push the soil from their burrows up to the surface, creating the characteristic mounds. Basically a gopher is a foot‑long, buck‑toothed, underground, bulldozing rat.
My wife is normally a gentle person; she’s been known to escort houseflies out the door. But if she could have a limited thermo‑ nuclear war against the gopher in our garden, she would. I do mean gopher not gophers, because it is usually only one animal that damages a garden or yard. “Gaufre”, French for honeycomb, was the word used by early French settlers in North American for this mammal. This well describes their actions. A single pocket gopher has 2,000 square feet of tunnels! They continually burrow searching for food ‑‑ succulent roots, bulbs and our Swiss Chard plants.
Back to the missing keys. I ran over to the Park maintenance yard and grabbed a shovel. By this time an even larger crowd was gathering, offering unwanted advice. We decided to methodically dig from the hole outward in a circular pattern. Suddenly a man called out, “Hold everything, I’ve got just the solution.” He tromped back from his Winnebago with a metal detector. Beep, beep, beep. “Dig here.” And there in a side burrow surrounded by pieces of carrot and grass stems were the keys. I suppose that all is well that ends well. Except that we made a mess of the gopher’s pantry.