Our Southeastern pocket gopher is a serious tunnel engineer

Even during our chilly winter days, fresh mounds of sand can be seen on the ground surface in yards, forests and fields.

 

The perpetrator is the southeastern pocket gopher, also known as a ‘sandy-mounder’ in Florida.

The pocket gopher is an efficient rodent well adapted for its underground lifestyle. They have very small eyes and ears and large claws on powerful front legs, for digging. The lips close behind the protruding chisel-like front teeth, so the gopher can chew through dense soil or large roots without getting dirt in its mouth.

The pocket gopher has a tan to gray-brown fur coat and a naked light colored tail. In our region, the average total length (nose to tail) for an adult pocket gopher is about 10 inches.

Typically, pocket gophers require deep, well-drained sandy soils. They mostly live in longleaf pine and turkey oak sandhill habitats but are also found in pine plantation, coastal strand, sand pine scrub and upland hammock habitats.

They can dig extensive tunnel systems and are rarely seen on the surface. These diggers are amazing tunnel engineers. The average tunnel length can be about 145 feet and at least one tunnel was followed for 525 feet.

The main tunnels run parallel to the ground and most are 2 inches to 2 feet below the surface, but some tunnels may extend downward as far as 5 feet.

The soil pocket gophers remove while digging their tunnels is pushed to the surface to form the characteristic rows of sand mounds that we see.

The sand mounds seem to be more frequent during the cooler months and slower in the summer.

In the spring, pocket gophers can tunnel and push up one to three mounds each day. The mounds are setup as backfilled mechanisms minimizing tunnel entrances and exits. This design and behavior is a defense against the pocket gopher’s main predator, the Florida pine snake, which goes down the tunnel after its prey.

The pine snake kills the gopher by pressing it against the wall of the tunnel, rather than wrapping it in coils like other constricting snakes.

The pocket gopher feeds on roots, fleshy rhizomes (long horizontal underground roots), bulbs and tubers of a wide variety of plants in their natural landscape.

Bahia grass roots appear to be a preferred food based on the contents of food caches (underground storage areas). They also have an unfortunate appetite for some of our agricultural crops such as peanuts, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, alfalfa and peas.

The most common problem associated with pocket gophers is the numerous large, sandy mounds they deposit on the surface, causing damage to agricultural fields, yards, golf courses and gardens.

In natural settings, pocket gopher tunneling activities are beneficial. The soil they bring to the surface contains nutrients leached from above. This natural fertilizer helps to maintain the sandhill ecosystem. The mounds of loose soil provide needed germination sites for some native plant seeds.

Many amphibians and reptiles use pocket gopher mounds as homes, including Florida’s unique mole skinks, so the pocket gopher’s tunnels themselves serve as habitat for many unique invertebrates found nowhere else.

To contact Mike Adams, email adamscience@windstream.net.

 

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