“Old McDonald had a farm,” and McDonald is a ... gopher?
A new paper published in the scientific journal Current Biology explores the possibility that pocket gophers might be the first known mammal that farms.
Pocket gophers excavate tunnels, and scientists discovered that while it’s difficult for roots to reach down into tunnels of that depth to provide food, roots grow into the pocket gophers’ tunnels, per Current Biology.
What makes scientists consider pocket gophers to be farmers?
Researchers discussed two main reasons that pocket gophers could be considered farmers, according to The New York Times.
- The gophers are deciding how to use the land and actively planting and controlling it.
- Digging requires energy. So it has to be coming from somewhere inside the tunnels, and experts believe that the pocket gophers derive energy from the plants consumed within the tunnels.
“Because they provide and cultivate this optimal environment for growth — that’s what we think makes them farmers,” Veronica Selden, who led the research, told The New York Times.
What do we know about pocket gophers?
According to Science, pocket gophers typically live most of their lives in the underground excavated tunnels that are “longer than a U.S. football field,” using their teeth to do most of the digging.
A recent study also found that their fur provides light, almost making them glow in the dark in the tunnels, per BioOne Complete.
Pocket gophers only leave the tunnels and come aboveground for two reasons:
- To mate.
- To forage.
Who says pocket gophers don’t qualify as farmers?
Some skeptics argue that what pocket gophers do doesn’t qualify as farming because they do not sow or weed the crops.
“To describe the gopher activity as farming seems like a stretch,” Kimberly Asmus Hersey, mammal conservation coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, told National Geographic. “I don’t see this as all that different from many other plant and herbivore interactions.”
One reason Selden wanted to research pocket gophers was to change how people talk about the little rodents.
“Learning that gophers themselves are farmers … may hopefully shift the narrative from them being agricultural pests to agricultural partners that we can learn from,” she told National Geographic.