Southeastern Pocket Gopher

Pocket Gopher The southeastern pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis) is a species of burrowing rodent from Order Rodentia that is native to Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. They belong to the Geomyidae Family, which includes 35 species in North and Central America known for their tunneling activities. The name pocket gopher comes from their fur-lined cheek pouches or pockets that they use to store and transport food to their underground burrows. Their genus name comes from the Greek word geo, meaning "earth," and mys, meaning "mouse." The species name, pinetis, is derived from the Latin word pinetum, meaning "from a pine wood." Pocket gophers are also sometimes known as "sandy mounders" for the sandy mounds of excavated earth that they leave at the mouths of their burrows. Locals in the Southeast have been known to morph the term "sandy mounders" into the word "salamander," confusingly referring to this mammal with the common name shared by an order of amphibians.

Southeastern pocket gophers are fossorial animals, meaning that they spend most of their lives underground. They have a compact thick body with small eyes and ears and a short tail. They are equipped with muscular, clawed forelimbs that they use to dig their burrows. The southeastern pocket gopher is considered a medium sized rodent. The pocket gopher ranges between 7.9 to 11.8 inches (~20 to 30 centimeters) in length and weigh about 3.5 to 10.5 ounces (~100 to 300 grams) with males being around 10 percent heavier than females. The species has cinnamon brown fur with a reddish orange tinge along the flanks and shoulders. The chest and stomach surfaces are light gray to brown with white along the forearms, throat, and feet.

Southeastern Pocket Gopher Burrows Pocket gopher dens can be easily identified by the cone-shaped piles of loose sand that have been pushed to the surface at the entrances. Their subterranean tunnels are anywhere between 5.9 inches to 6.5 feet (~15 centimeters to 2 meters) below the surface, featuring 6 to 12 entrances, and mounds, associated with each tunnel system. There are five phases to building a mound: prospecting, groundbreaking, excavation, mound building, and plugging of the entrance. The species is known to build more mounds during periods of low temperatures, a practice thought to be a response to increased efforts to find food. Female burrows tend to be more compact and localized, whereas male burrows are more linear and spreading.

The spreading form of the male's tunnels is believed to increase his chances of detecting the odor of a female in her burrow system for mating. After mating occurs, pocket gophers seal off their burrows and do not interact further. The pocket gopher breeds throughout the year but peak season is between January and August. Young are born between March and August. Females usually give birth to one to three pups per litter, with an average of one to two litters per year. The pups are weaned within a month after birth and reach maturity at six months of age.

Southeastern pocket gophers have alternating periods of activity throughout the day and night, with most of the mounding activity taking place at dusk and dawn. They are usually solitary and can be highly territorial, only coming together in order to breed. The typical lifespan of a southeastern pocket gopher is between two and five years, with depredation and habitat loss being the most common causes of death in this species. Pocket gophers face several threats from predators that are able to follow them into their burrows, such as weasels and snakes, most notably the pine snake whose range overlaps the southeastern pocket gopher. Other predators include coyotes that can dig them up from underground and birds of prey, such as owls and hawks, which grab them if they ever leave the burrows.

These gophers are strictly herbivorous. Their diet consists of roots, tubers, rhizomes, and some above-ground plants. In addition to longleaf pine ecosystems, southeastern pocket gophers can be found around agricultural fields and are historically known as a pest, being especially attracted to sweet potato, peanut, and sugarcane crops. Food caches are usually stored within chambers along their tunnel system. They have specialized teeth adapted for their diets, with ever growing, large incisors used for gnawing and chewing. They have the ability to close their lips behind their incisors to prevent dirt from entering into the mouth when using their teeth.

Pocket Gopher in Burrow The pocket gopher inhabits the dry, sandy areas of the coastal plain region of Alabama, southern Georgia, and central Florida and plays a vital role in the health of that ecosystem. This area is full of longleaf pines, turkey oaks, and live oaks, and their mound building and tunneling helps to aerate and cycle nutrients in the soil to increase diversity and vegetation growth. Several species of amphibians and reptiles use pocket gopher burrows as shelter along with arthropods, of which 14 species have only been discovered from these types of habitats. Much of the southeastern pocket gopher's ecology, however, remains still poorly understood due to its fossorial lifestyle and limited distribution.

Within Alabama, the pocket gopher has historically been recorded in 16 counties, all of which are located within the upper and lower coastal plain east of Mobile Bay and the Tombigbee and Black Warrior River Systems. Today, the southeastern pocket gopher is found in abundant numbers in suitable habitat but is absent in a large portion of its historical range in Alabama and other states. Habitat loss is the main driver of the significant decrease in numbers, and its low reproduction rates reduce its capacity to recover. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has listed the southeastern pocket gopher as high priority conservation status. Land management practices of restoring longleaf pine habitat on both public and private land have been discussed, but there is still little information about their specific habitat needs.

Further Reading

  • Pembleton , Edward F., and Steven I. Williams. "Geomys pinetis." Mammalian Species 86 (January 1978): 1-4.
  • Warren Ashley E., L. Mike Conner, Steven B. Castleberry, and Daniel Markewitz. "Home Range, Survival, and Activity Patterns of the Southeastern Pocket Gopher: Implications for Translocation." Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 8 (December 2017): 544-57.

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