Monday, December 10, 2012

Species Profile: The Mazama Pocket Gopher

Posted by F. T. Waterstrat, USFWS

Western Washington State is home to a shrinking prairie landscape and the animals that depend on it are in trouble. Learn about the life and times of one of the newest species proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act and about an amazing animal that our biologists are committed to conserving:

The Mazama Pocket Gopher (Thomomys mazama)

Thōmos (Greek): heap, from the heaps of earth thrown out along the burrows + mys: mouse-like;
mazama: (Native American) A former volcano (now Crater Lake) in Oregon where the species was first described in 1897

The inner lips keep out dirt while the gopher digs.
Photo Credit: Kim Flotlin, USFWS

Washington’s Mazama Pocket Gophers are busy burrowing rodents that live under our feet in the prairie soils of Western Washington. The word “pocket” in “pocket gopher” is not a description of their size, but rather refers to the pocket-like pouches in their cheeks that they stuff full of food and nesting material. These fur-lined pouches can be turned inside out and emptied, like you would your pants pockets.  Not only do these 6 -9 inch diggers create tunnels to store food (forbs, grasses, fleshy roots and bulbs), but they also dig deep tunnels with chambers that act as nurseries for their young, pantries, and latrines.  The shallower tunnels are used mainly for foraging as they scurry and burrow under the soil.

The Mazama Pocket Gopher (Thomomys mazama)
Photo Credit: WDFW
 The gopher’s underground, or fossorial, lifestyle has led to an incredible array of adaptations for a life of tunneling and burrowing.  They possess large claws and teeth to help them dig and a second set of “lips” behind their teeth to keep them from getting a mouthful of dirt. Pocket gophers have  brownish-yellow to iridescent black fur that bends forwards and back keeping them from getting stuck and  narrow hips that allow them to completely turn around within the diameter of their own body.

Gophers are an important part of a working prairie ecosystem. An average pocket gopher can turn over one ton of soil each year, bringing vegetation and waste into the soil to act as fertilizer, aerating the soil, decreasing soil compaction,  and creating new planting beds for seeds to grow, which increases native plant diversity. One of the reasons they can move so much dirt is that they don’t hibernate in the winter, but keep on tunneling and foraging under and in the snow.  Gophers are also an important food source for many mammals, large birds, and snakes.  In addition, their unoccupied burrows provide a cool, moist refuge for animals such as salamanders, toads, and other creatures when topside conditions are hostile.

South Puget Sound Prairies
Photo Credit: Sarah Coven, WDFW
Washington’s Mazama pocket gophers inhabit the state’s western prairie and grassland soils.  These once-expansive areas have lost 97 percent of their historic area from conversion to agriculture, commercial and residential development, and the incursion of shrubs and trees because low intensity wildfires no longer sweep across the landscape.  This decrease in habitat has led to increasingly smaller and separated local populations that restrict connectivity and gene flow between organisms (think inbreeding).  Eight unique subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers were found within Washington State. Sadly, two of the subspecies, the Cathlamet Pocket Gopher and the Tacoma Pocket Gopher, are likely extinct and will never tunnel through our soils again.  However there is a bright light ahead for gophers and their fellow prairie species, the streaked Horned Lark and Taylor’s Checkerspot butterfly. These prairie species are getting the protection and attention they require under the Endangered Species Act until their numbers increase. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Mazama pocket gopher, please visit these sites:
To see more images of the Mazama Pocket gopher visit our Flickr Site:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.