By GEORGE VARGA
While hiking in Oak Canyon, I detected some motion on the ground. By the time I focused on the area, there was nothing moving. Then suddenly, a fleeting fur ball appeared but quickly retreated down the hole from which it had emerged. I remained as quiet as possible, reaching for my camera, and hoped for a photo opportunity. The little critter obliged. I successfully captured numerous images of it. For quite a while I observed what turned out to be a Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae).
The species name and common name honors Paul-Emile Botta, a naturalist and archeologist who collected mammals in California during the 1820s and 1830s. The range of T. bottae goes from California east to Texas and from Utah and southern Colorado into Mexico. Their large cheek pouches are the source of the word “pocket” in their common name. The animal fills the external fur-lined cheek pouches with food and carries it into storage chambers in its underground burrow system.
Botta’s pocket gopher is an herbivore eating roots, stems, and bulbs of plants. It can eat without leaving the safety of its burrow. It simply pulls its food into the tunnel through the roof, to be consumed on the spot or taken to a food storage chamber. Botta’s pocket gopher seldom appears above ground in the daytime because hawks, herons, and egrets would be delighted to feast on one. At night, coyotes and great horned owls are also a threat to survival. Day or night, snakes, such as the aptly named gopher snake, will crawl into the Botta’s tunnel and eat both adults and the young.
When burrowing or moving soil, Botta’s pocket gopher uses its powerful front feet to move through and push away soil. It also uses its large front incisors to break up soil. The teeth continuously grow to accommodate the wear and tear on them. A single gopher can, in a year’s time, dig a burrow system consisting of up to 200 yards and displacing over two tons of soil.
Although gophers are considered as pests in urban and agricultural areas because of their burrowing activity, gophers are important in nature because they make the soil richer. They push minerals from the deeper part of their burrows toward the surface and the burrowing in general helps to aerate the soil.
— George Varga is a Mission Trails Regional Park trail guide.