Gopher is the first non-human mammal known to farm – News

Although you’ll probably never see them, you can spot them through the mounds of sandy soil dotting the field: the pocket gopher. Beneath your feet, the Gophers are constantly creating and reshaping a maze of winding tunnels hundreds of feet long.

And maybe take care of the most recent farms discovered in the world. This is the root planter.

A biology professor and undergraduate student at the University of Florida discovered that southeastern pocket gophers tend to fields of subterranean roots that they harvest for food. This discovery makes rodents the only mammals – other than humans – known to farm for a living.

“They provide this ideal environment for root growth and fertilization with their offal,” said Veronica Selden, who recently graduated from Florida with a degree in zoology and is the first author of the new research.

The daily harvest of their root crops is on average 20% and up to 60% of their energy needs, which helps offset the energy-intensive cost of digging in dense soil. Selden and Professor Jack Putz published their findings July 11 in the journal Current Biology, in which they argue that gopher root-cropping behavior constitutes a type of primitive agriculture.

Mysterious creatures, pocket gophers spend nearly their entire lives underground in sprawling tunnels up to 500 feet long. Although they are often seen as pests, they eat only roots and rarely damage crops. Their powerful tunnels also do not undermine the earth.

“They live alone in a 100-meter tunnel system. Dark and damp like a sewer pipe,” Putz said. “Roots grow like stalactites and stalagmites. They’re covering the walls of their tunnel.”

In fact, the sewers helped inspire the project. Potz and Selden were at a loss as to how gophers got enough energy to dig when they remembered the perennial problem of root growth in home sewer pipes.

“If roots grow in these man-made tunnels, they might grow in these tunnels gophers that contain droppings for fertilization,” Selden said.

Fortunately for gophers, the roots are their main food source.

The project relied on ingenuity, collaboration, and – in honor of the gopher – a lot of digging. In the house where Putz lived, he and Selden spent months trying to get gophers out of their tunnels so they could measure the roots they had grown in. Using dams of wood or metal, the researchers tried to block gophers from their tunnels, but to no avail – the gophers were just wandering around.

In the end, Putz and Selden switched to 50-gallon drums with the ends cut off. After more digging, the researchers placed the open side of the barrel into the soil to cordon off a patch of gopher tunnels while allowing plants on the surface to continue to grow. The cylindrical shape provides 360 degrees of gopher interference protection. (The scientists note in their paper that while gophers were certainly annoyed by the project, none of them were harmed.)

Calculating the daily rate of root growth allowed Selden and Putz, with the help of UF Professor Emeritus of Biology, Brian McNab and others, to calculate how much of the gophers’ energy needs could be met by harvesting their crops.

They discovered that digging the tunnels costs a lot of energy which can be formed by the roots that gophers eat while digging. But, by harvesting roots that grow in tunnels already dug over time, gophers can get enough energy to keep digging tunnels in search of more food.

Although no other mammals are known to farm, other animals certainly do. Fungi-cultivated ants are perhaps the best known. They grow and tend fields of fungi and protect them from disease with antibiotics—much like the way human farmers use herbicides against weeds.

Unlike these ants, pocket gophers neither grow nor plant their crops. Indeed, while gophers clearly harvest their crops by the roots to survive, and take steps to defend and promote their crops, the new study reveals that the definition of “agriculture” is far from clear.

“For some people, growing a crop is what constitutes farming,” Putz said.

However, many other animals, as well as various human cultures, use horticultural techniques to take care of crops they don’t grow themselves, Putz noted.

“I think the whole issue is intellectually exciting because it’s not really settled,” he said.

Selden hopes the discussion will draw attention to the animals that are being ignored.

“Pocket gophers are more interesting than people give them credit for. They really deserve more attention,” said Selden, who began her research career by reflecting on the habits of rodents and has continued to study the ecology of bats and bees.

Eric Hamilton 11 July 2022

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