The fossorial (burrowing) pocket gopher is a rarely seen animal, since it spends almost its entire life underground in its extensive tunnels. Only the many mounds of dirt on the surface show where these animals are active. The mounds have no visible holes, because the gophers plug them from underneath. Occasionally the gopher opens a hole to allow some air exchange in the tunnel, or to let the tunnels dry out after heavy rains.
These little animals are active year round, always digging and extending their tunnel systems. They perform a valuable service in turning and aerating the soil. Many other creatures such as rabbits, ground squirrels, mice, skunks, snakes, lizards, and toads use gopher holes and tunnels.
Sonoran Desert species:
Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae)
Spanish Names: tuza, topo
This heavy-bodied animal is about 9H inches (24 cm) long and weighs 6 to 8 ounces (170-225 g). It has very small ears and eyes, a short naked tail and large forelimbs with long claws. The lips close behind the large incisor teeth, so that the teeth are always visible. This gopher ranges in color from pale gray or white to almost black.
Pocket gophers are found throughout the Sonoran Desert region where there are easily dug soils, such as those in riparian areas, washes, farms, mesquite bosques and golf courses. They are found at all elevations, but not usually in the hard caliche soils of the desert.
• Diet: These animals are vegetarians, eating roots, tubers, grasses, green plants, and prickly pears.
• Behavior: Pocket gophers are very shy and timid, seldom leaving their underground tunnel systems. They prefer to pull plants down into the tunnel from below. They also store food for lean times in chambers off the main tunnel.
Although male gophers leave their tunnels to seek mates, and 2-month-old youngsters leave home to establish their own territories, pocket gophers spend most of their time underground in their own tunnels. A pocket gopher only occasionally ventures to the surface for a tasty plant, or to dump a load of dirt. It rarely moves far from the tunnel entrance, and if startled, quickly retreats backward down the hole. A sensitive tail helps the animal feel its way as it runs backward through its 90 to 200 foot (27-61 m) long tunnel. Side chambers are used for food storage, latrines or nest chambers.
The gopher’s teeth are continuously growing (9 to 14 inches/23 to 35 cm a year!) and must be kept trimmed by constant gnawing. Both the teeth and the long claws are used for digging, and the gopher’s lips close behind its teeth so that dirt doesn’t get in its mouth while it digs. Gophers are solitary, only getting together for mating once or perhaps twice a year, with 2 to 6 young born 19 days later. These youngsters will be sexually mature adults in 3 months.