Gophers may be the first non-human mammal to “farm,” but only if scientists agree on what farming even means

Pocket gopher. Photo by Kim Flotlin from Wikimedia Commons.

Animals farm too. Such behavior has been seen in leaf-cutter ants, ambrosia beetles, and damselfish.

According to a new study, researchers may have found that the pocket gopher may be the first case of a non-human mammal displaying farming behavior. Pocket gophers have been found to “fertilize” and harvest roots, which researchers Francis Putz and Veronica Selden believe can be considered as agriculture.

Gophers were thought to feed themselves by eating roots they come across while they create tunnels. This was a problematic idea, though. Researchers have shown that eating the roots encountered during tunnel construction is not enough to provide pocket gophers with enough calories to even dig the tunnels in the first place.

To uncover how gophers get enough calories,  researchers observed the behavior of these animals in a longleaf pine savanna in Florida. They saw that roots grew where gophers had dug their tunnels. By tunneling through the ground, they aerate the soil, thus allowing the plants to grow. They also scatter their feces and urine throughout the tunnels, fertilizing the soil in the process. According to the researchers, these behaviors count as farming as the activities exhibited by the gopher help create an environment conducive to root crops.

Other researchers, however, argued whether “farming” is an appropriate term to describe the gophers’ activities. Gophers do not sow or weed their crops, which are behaviors in other animals seen as a form of farming.

Despite the skepticism surrounding their study, Sleden says that regarding gophers as farmers may shift the beliefs of many people that the underground animals are agricultural pests. Studies have shown that they are important engineers for their environment. As an example, they have been shown to help keep several invading tree seedlings away from prairies and meadows, thus preserving the ecosystem.


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