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Do gophers farm roots? It’s not as clear as viral articles claim

Pocket gophers certainly don’t qualify as card-carrying 4-H members, but the rodents might be farming roots in the open air of their moist, nutrient-rich tunnels.

The gophers subsist mostly on roots encountered in the tunnels that the rodents excavate. But the local terrain doesn’t always provide enough roots to sustain gophers, two researchers report in the July 11 Current Biology. To make up the deficit, the gophers practice a simple type of agriculture by creating conditions that promote more root growth, suggest ecologist Jack Putz of the University of Florida in Gainesville and his former zoology undergraduate student Veronica Selden.

But some scientists think it’s a stretch to call the rodents’ activity farming. Gophers aren’t actively working the soil, these researchers say, but inadvertently altering the environment as the rodents eat and poop their way around — much like all animals do.

Tunnel digging takes a lot of energy — up to 3,400 times as much as walking along the surface for gophers. To see how the critters were getting all this energy, Selden and Putz in 2021 began investigating the tunnels of southeastern pocket gophers (Geomys pinetis) in an area being restored to longleaf pine savanna in Florida that Putz partially owns.

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