When you imagine a farmer, what do you see? Probably not a pocket gopher — a small, solitary rodent that tunnels through the soil and munches on roots all across North and Central America.
That said, recent research in Current Biology reveals that some southeastern pocket gophers cultivate and collect the roots in their tunnel walls to sustain themselves. The findings also raise important questions about what actually counts as ‘agriculture.’
Roots and tubers make up the vast majority of southeastern pocket gophers’ meals, and researchers from the University of Florida, Gainesville find that a significant portion of these roots and tubers come from inside their own tunnels. In fact, they figure that invading roots provide anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of the daily food intake of many gophers.
More than merely collecting the roots that they stumble across, these gophers create conditions in their tunnels that actively promote the production of roots, fertilizing the soil with their waste. For these reasons, the researchers state that these pocket gophers could count as one of the first mammalian farmers outside of humans.
“It really depends on how ‘farming’ is defined,” says F. E. “Jack” Putz, a corresponding study author and professor from the University of Florida, Gainesville, in a press release. “If farming requires that crops be planted, then gophers don’t qualify. But this seems like a far too narrow definition for anyone with a more horticultural perspective in which crops are carefully managed […] but not necessarily planted.”
The cultivation and collection of roots helps gophers meet the high-energy requirements involved in tunneling. This could clarify their reason for creating and maintaining such complex systems of burrows in the first place. To these gophers, researchers say, the tunnels serve the same purpose as fields of crops.
Future investigations could uncover whether seasonal fluctuations in the gophers’ cultivation and collection of roots impact their cycles of activity. Studies could also ascertain whether the gophers’ agricultural activities in their tunnels impact the vegetation at the surface of the soil.
“Whether or not they qualify as farmers, root cultivation is worth further investigation,” writes the researchers in their study.