Researchers have found that plains pocket gophers ( Geomys pinetis ) engage in a kind of ‘farming’, growing roots that provide them with an average of 21% but up to 62% of their daily metabolic needs. These animals have adapted to a burrowing lifestyle thanks to their clawed front legs for digging, small eyes and ears, and sensitive whiskers and tails. They spend most of their lives underground, digging horizontal tunnels approximately 160 meters long. These rodents love loose, sandy soils with edible plants , and typically establish their habitats in lawns and farm fields. Their diet is based, above all, on plant roots.
A picturesque form of agriculture
Based on field measurements, these creatures would not only harvest the roots of longleaf pine trees growing in their homes, but cultivate them.
“Southeastern pocket gophers are the first breeders of non-human mammals,” says biologist Francis Putz of the University of Florida and co-author of the paper published in the journal Current Biology . “Agriculture is known among species of ants, beetles, and termites, but not among other mammals” .
Pocket gophers create a complex network of tunnel homes underground as they move. And, according to the authors, they build and navigate this underground labyrinth while tending the root fields.
By studying root growth in an isolated part of a gopher network tunnel, the researchers calculated that the root growing in the tunnel network could provide 20 to 60 percent of the daily calories needed by gophers. creatures. When the roots reach the burrows, their growth is encouraged by the pocket gopher’s droppings and urine.
” They provide this perfect environment for roots to grow and fertilize them with their debris,” said zoologist Veronica Selden of the University of Florida.
“Planting the crop, for some people, is what constitutes farming. However, many other animals, and also different human cultures, use horticultural techniques to care for crops that they do not plant themselves ”, clarified researcher Jack Putz, also a co-author of the work. “I think the whole thing is intellectually exciting because it’s not really resolved.”
“Pocket gophers are much more interesting than people think . They are really important ecosystem engineers. They deserve more attention,” added Selden.
Referencia: V. Selden & F.E. Putz. Root cropping by pocket gophers. Current Biology, published online July 11, 2022; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.06.003