Pocket Gophers Are Underground “Farmers” – ScienceDaily

Pocket gophers are known to live solitary, underground lives, eating roots in the grasslands of North and Central America. Now researchers reporting in the journal Current biology on July 11 discovered that pocket gophers cope with the high energy demands of their burrowing lifestyle by “cultivating” roots that grow in their tunnels. They calculate that these roots provide 20-60% of gophers’ daily caloric needs.

“Southeastern pocket gophers are the first breeders of non-human mammals,” says FE “Jack” Putz of the University of Florida at Gainesville. “Agriculture is known in species of ants, beetles, and termites, but not in other mammals.”

Veronica Selden and Putz report that pocket gophers don’t just eat roots that grow in the paths of new tunnels they dig. Instead, they provide conditions that promote root growth, spreading their own waste as fertilizer. As a result, the authors claim that – by promoting the growth of roots in their tunnels, and then harvesting or cultivating those roots – the pocket gophers of the southeast stumbled upon a food production system termed agriculture.

“It really depends on how ‘farming’ is defined,” Putz says. “If agriculture requires crops to be planted, then ground squirrels do not qualify. But that seems to be far too narrow a definition for anyone with a more horticultural perspective in which crops are carefully managed – such as fruit trees in forests – but not From this perspective, the origins of agriculture included the Mesopotamian cultivation of annual grains and legumes as well as the cultivation of maize in the Americas, but many cultures around the world developed crop-based agriculture perennials, many of which did not plant but tended.”

Selden and Putz suggest that root culture may explain why ground squirrels guard and defend such extensive tunnel systems. The tunnels are comparable to rows of crops. If indeed what they do is considered farming, then ground squirrels are the first known non-human mammal to farm.

“Pocket gophers are great examples of ecosystem engineers that turn the soil over, aerating it and bringing nutrients to the surface,” says Putz. “They only eat roots, some of which grow on their own, and rarely interfere with human activities.”

They note that further study could reveal whether ground squirrels eat fungi and how the seasonal variation in energy contributions from roots growing in tunnels relates to their cycles of activity. It is not yet known how their underground activities affect the vegetation on the surface.

“Whether or not [pocket gophers] to qualify as farmers, root cultivation deserves further study,” the researchers write.

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