Farming has been an integral part of the long story of the development of human society. Some mark the beginning of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent in 8500 BC as the start of human civilization. It’s with this in mind that we think of farming as an entirely human job, but that’s not true. Some species of ants have been known to farm fungus, and now there’s even a new mammal in the game.
Researchers from the University of Florida have discovered that southeastern pocket gophers maintain and tend to subterranean roots that they harvest for food.
These rodents create and improve on an extensive network of tunnels which affords them an opportunity for roots to grow.
“They’re providing this perfect environment for roots to grow and fertilizing them with their waste,” says Veronica Selden of the University of Florida and the first author of the paper in Current Biology.
These root crops account for up to 60 percent of the gophers’ energy, which they need for the energy-intensive work of digging and maintaining their tunnels. In the study, the authors make the argument that the gophers’ work and tunnels, which can reach up to 500 feet long, constitute a kind of farming. Not only does this now damage the crops or undermine the soil, but this behavior benefits the area with their waste fertilizing the soil.
While the study found that the consumption of roots doesn’t make up for the energy lost in the gophers digging the tunnels, the roots allow them the energy to continue the search for other sources of food. This ingenuity and symbiosis with their surroundings make the common perception of gophers as pests quite unfortunate.
“Pocket gophers are a lot more interesting than people give them credit for. They’re really important ecosystem engineers,” says Selden. “They deserve more attention.”
Source Study: Current Biology — Root cropping by pocket gophers: Current Biology (cell.com)