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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Gophers: Gardeners of the grassland

<ve you ever wondered what forces make the tallgrass prairies in the Arb and McKnight Prairie such rich, biodiverse ecosystems, teeming with grassland plants, insects and birds? Well, one answer might lie beneath your feet. Much of what you see above ground is directly influenced by a number of unseen organisms beneath the surface, chief among these a bizarre, soil-colored creature that lives its life in darkness, guided mostly by its nose. Equipped with yellow incisors and formidable claws, working through the soil comes naturally to the Plains Pocket Gopher.

In the gopher’s search for roots, tubers, and sometimes whole plants, this ghostly gardener of the grassland changes the nature of the soil and of the ecosystem as a whole.

So much digging aerates the soil, making it more friable and more conducive to plant growth.“Pocket gophered” soil is easier for plants to grow in, and easier for other burrowing animals, as well as the pocket gopher itself, to dig and move through. As the gophers excavate, they redistribute rich organic matter, supporting vital nutrient cycling processes by moving carbon, nitrogen and microorganisms through the soil. In the Arb, you might notice pocket gopher mounds, areas where gopher activity has been so heavy that they are now mostly grassless.

By “destructively” clearing sections of prairie either through foraging or mound-building, pocket gophers actually prepare the landscape for a different crop of prairie plants. Outcompeted or unsuited to grow in the typically rich, black earth of the prairie, such plants may thrive on the poorer soils which pocket gopher mounds bring to the surface. Pocket gophers’ “destructive” work habits also lessen competition for resources and overcrowding among plants, providing them more access to sunlight and increasing community diversity by keeping grass height and density uneven. Overall, gophers support a mosaic of different plant communities and soil types, which in turn, will support a wide range of consumers.

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