Do gophers grow the roots they eat?

Gophers or pocket gophers are small rodents from America that live in the ground, where they dig huge networks of tunnels “longer than an American football field”, according Science (more than 100 meters long). They only come out occasionally, to mate or feed. But why on earth do these little beasts expend all their energy building such large galleries?

The answer, according to a study published on July 11 in Current Biology, is that they would practice a kind of« agriculture ». According to researchers who have studied the species Geomys pinetis (pocket gopher of the Southeast) using cameras of the same type used in plumbing, gophers graze on the roots that grow in their tunnels. But Science points out a peculiarity:

« The researchers note that, unlike other gophers which hide waste in certain chambers, G. pinetis drops waste into the tunnels, thereby fertilizing the soil. »

Through root cultivation and fertilization, Southeast pocket gophers would practice an efficient culture that could provide more than 20 percent of their daily calories, the researchers note in the study. But for other scientists interviewed by Science, talking about agriculture is somewhat daring.

Reasoned harvest

For Stan Braude, a mammalian biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, what these pocket gophers do has nothing to do with advanced agriculture, which involves planting seeds and multiplying crops. Nevertheless, reports the scientific journal, it brings a nuance to this opinion :

« The behavior of the pocket gopher is agricultural, that is to say, to make a reasoned harvest, to preserve the rest and to take care of it so that the plant continues to grow. »

Ulrich Mueller, who studies agriculture in insects like ants at the University of Texas, disagrees. « He doesn’t think gophers practice agriculture, because they don’t plant or distribute their harvest, like humans and some other creatures, such as ants, that grow mushrooms do, » explain again Science.

Agriculture or not, Jack Putz, who led the study, hopes the work will pave the way for further research into the behavior of other rodents.

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