It was initially believed that humans were the only mammals that practiced farming. However, humans might not be the only ones cultivating the land to generate food. Scientists have found evidence that a small mammal is known as pocket gophers (Geomys pinetis) also manages, fertilizes, and harvests roots for food. According to the authors of a study published July 11 in Current Biology, this meets the definition of agriculture.
The small creatures harvest the longleaf pine roots that grow into their houses, according to measurements taken on a field where they have dug tunnels. These meandering tunnels, which are hundreds of meters long, are constantly being altered and improved.
The researchers behind the new study note several unmistakable signs that the pocket gophers know what they are doing regarding root management, even though there is considerable scientific disagreement over what counts as farming and what does not.
“The first non-human mammalian farmers are the Southeastern pocket gophers. Farming is common among species of termites, beetles, and ants, but not other mammals,” Francis (Jack) Putz, a professor of biology at the University of Florida and the author behind this study, explains.
“Gophers are shaping the soil and the plants. They are in charge of the crops. If farming is about crop management, that’s exactly what they’re doing,” according to Putz.
Mammalian subterranean specialists
The majority of a Southeastern pocket gopher’s life is spent underground alone. While these mammals are widespread across North and Central American grasslands, it is unlikely that you will see one. This is because their presence is usually only known from mounds of sand soil they leave behind after excavating extensive underground tunnel networks that extend more than 500 feet, typically about 50 inches below the surface.
Their physical structure is ideal for such a life since they can dig using their teeth (without swallowing dirt) and their mouths closed behind their incisors. Seeds and plant material are carried in fur-lined pockets on either side of their faces as they plow. Recent studies have found that they also glow in the dark, which is another helpful ability when living underground—possibly for avoiding predators or communicating.
It was earlier believed that gophers mostly eat the roots they come across when digging new tunnel systems. However, excavating tunnels requires a lot of energy—up to 300–3000 times more than walking on a flat surface—and the researchers demonstrate that eating the roots discovered during excavation simply cannot make up for the energy expended.
According to Putz and Veronica Selden, an undergraduate researcher at the University of Florida behind this study, pocket gophers don’t just eat roots that happen to develop along the courses of brand-new tunnels they dig. Instead, they disseminate their excrement as fertilizer to create favorable conditions for root growth. Consequently, the authors argue that southeastern pocket gophers have stumbled onto a food production technique that counts as farming by encouraging root growth in their tunnels and then harvesting or cropping those roots.
The inspiration behind the research
Sewer pipes, frequently stressed by root development, served as the inspiration for the gopher research project. The research team was interested in learning whether roots were constantly attempting to creep into the gophers’ tunnel homes and how the rodents might grow the food supply in their pre-existing tunnels and new burrows.
The researchers estimated that the root growing into the tunnel network might contribute 20–60% of the daily calories the critters need. It requires a lot of energy to maintain these underground networks. They accomplished this by tracking the development of roots in a single tunnel within a gopher network.
Once the roots enter the burrows, gopher’s growth is encouraged through poop and pee. Even while it may not be the most sophisticated form of farming, the researchers maintain that it qualifies as being close to what humans do. It is also clear that the animals effortlessly protect their harvests. In other words, what constitutes farming is the upkeep of the burrows and the control of the environmental factors that allow roots to continue to grow.
“They’re giving roots a fantastic environment to develop in and nourish them with their waste,” according to Selden.
According to Putz, pocket gophers are good examples of ecosystem engineers as they turn over the soil to aerate it and bring nutrients back to the surface. They hardly interact with human activities and only consume roots, some of which they grow themselves.
According to Selden and Putz, root cropping may help explain why gophers maintain and guard such vast tunnel networks. The gophers are the first non-human mammal known to farm if what they’re doing qualifies as farming.
Some experts contend that planting crops, assisting in their growth, and harvesting them are all necessary steps in effective farming; however, the research team notes that this hasn’t always been the case with human farming.
One example of farming that involves careful crop management rather than planting them is the cultivation of forest fruit trees. This concept may be applied to any permanent crop that develops independently. Gophers can be regarded as farmers under that criteria.
Some people define agriculture as “planting the crop,” explains Putz. Since the matter is still up for debate, I believe it is intellectually stimulating.
The discovery raises intriguing questions about the ecological role of these creatures. It suggests that animal-plant interactions are frequently much more complex than first thought, even though more research is required to conclusively establish that this behavior constitutes a type of agriculture or “farming.” It demonstrates that gophers are more than just pests; they are ecological engineers.
Feature image credit: GOPHER, VALLEY POCKET by CRITTERS (MAMMALS)