Gophers are smarter and more interesting than we think

It’s a right of passage for us living on the Prairies that some know-it-all will eventually come into our lives and tell us the animal we’ve always called a gopher is actually a Richardson ground squirrel. And, once we find that out, we continue to call these creatures gophers anyway.
 
Why do we call Richardson ground squirrels gophers?
 
The word gopher derives from the French gaufre, which refers to a bunch of holes in a honeycombed shape. One could argue that the burrowing system gophers live in looks honeycombed if you could see the tunnels and chambers from above.
 
There isn’t an animal called a gopher; although there are pocket gophers, there are many different kinds of pocket gophers. They are not a part of the squirrel family at all.
 
There are, however, other ground squirrels on the Prairies that aren’t Richardson ground squirrels that we might also call gophers and not think too hard about the differences between these unique types of animals—like the thirteen-lined ground squirrel or the black-tailed prairie dog, which are both parts of the squirrel family.
 
There are 21 species of ground squirrels found in North America. 
 
The Richardson ground squirrel is named after John Richardson, a naturalist who explored the Saskatchewan River and collected rodent species way back in 1820.
 
Gophers on the Manitoban “outback”
 
I never thought about gophers much until I volunteered at the Assiniboine Park Zoo while living in Winnipeg. There was an exhibit called the Australian Walkabout where people could have an up-close look at red kangaroos and emus.
 
Living amongst these exotic animals were Richardson ground squirrels with black numbers painted on their backs to identify them to the biologists who were studying them. (There are no Richardson ground squirrels in Australia, FYI).
 
While working at the zoo, I attended a talk by one of those biologists, Dr. James Hare, who is now a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and has spent years studying ground squirrels.
 
While listening to Dr. Hare, I was blown away by how fascinating Richardson ground squirrels are. Like most people living on the Prairies, I took them for granted.
 
Did you know Richardson ground squirrels have their own vocabulary?
 
A specific chirp warns other Richardson ground squirrels a bird of prey is nearby, and there’s a whistle to alert of a predator on the ground—like a weasel or badger.
 
“They are great little beasts,” Dr. Hare wrote to me in a recent email after I reached out to him to clarify a few points from his talk all those years ago.
 
Richardson ground squirrels spend most of the year underground—adult males spend eight to nine months of the year hibernating. They only surface to mate and eat enough to fatten themselves up for the following winter.
 
Adult males awake from hibernation in February or March. They will start eating underground from a cache of food they stored away from the previous summer to help them fatten up a bit before coming above ground. Once top side, they establish territories over an area where several females are still hibernating.

“A badger doing his thing, digging out gopher holes to catch gophers. Seldom seen, however, is a badger transporting his prey back to his den.”

Gopher wars
 
A few weeks later, females emerge, and the males viciously fight each other for a chance to mate. Researcher photos show blood-stained males missing an ear or even a limb.
 
“All males ultimately end up with severe injuries by the end of the breeding season,” Dr. Hare said in his email. “I have been amazed at how they seem resistant to infection and will often recover from even the grizzliest of injuries.”
 
I want to think this is why the Saskatchewan Roughriders picked Gainer the Gopher to be their mascot. Male Richardson ground squirrels are brutal, but the Roughriders have yet to capitalize on this, as Gainer’s backstory is much tamer.
 
Mating season for gophers, which can last three to five weeks, can be dangerous for male Richardson ground squirrels as they can sometimes be more interested in a female than an approaching predator. Besides, male Richardson ground squirrels can kill each other while fighting over a female.
 
Once mating is over, the surviving males return to hibernation by June or early July.
 
Female gophers are independent
 
Adult females raise their pups (squirrel babies are referred to as kits) on their own and will be ready to head back into hibernation by July or early August. They can’t start fattening themselves up again until after they wean their kits.
 
Any Richardson ground squirrel you see above ground in late August and into the fall are juveniles.
 
Dr. Hare says this is because the kits need to forage enough food to fatten up so they can survive hibernation and be strong enough in the spring to mate.
 
Juvenile females will enter hibernation in late August or early September, while male juveniles can be above ground until October. Young males need the extra time to get big enough to take on the more experienced adult males in fights the following spring.
 
How gophers live underground
 
Females live on their own. In the summer, the females will spend time between two borrowed systems—like how some people have a house and a cabin.
 
These burrows can be a metre deep and can be accessed by five or 10 gopher holes.
 
Elaborate homes. Inside the burrow system, there can be three to five grass-lined sleeping chambers, like bedrooms, and a dedicated area where they go to the bathroom.
 
A hibernation chamber is built off the central burrow system. The squirrel severs off its connections to the central burrow system while preparing for hibernation. The chamber will only have a single entrance divided into two, a drain tunnel to carry away water and an exit tunnel that almost reaches the surface. In the spring, squirrels must dig themselves out.
 
Family groups. Females tend to neighbour their female relatives, with whom they maintain social relationships. A female’s home range can cover a 20 to 40-metre area.
 
“Lone wolves.” Male ground squirrels tend to live in unoccupied burrow systems and don’t maintain any relationships with their kin.
 
Juvenile females are sedentary and will take up a section of their mother’s home for her use.
 
Juvenile males will move further away to another area, preventing inbreeding the following year. Because these males must travel through unknown areas filled with unknown dangers to find their new homes, not all of them make it. Dr. Hare said some males could travel as far as 20 kilometres, although most journeys are much shorter.
 
Only about five to 15 per cent of young males survive to adulthood, whereas about 35 to 45 per cent of juvenile females survive the next summer.
 
Females often live for three or four years, whereas males are lucky if they make it to the age of three, given their violent and distracted mating tendencies.

Some people keep gophers as pets. GETTY IMAGES.

Gophers as pests
 
Although cute enough that some people keep them as pets, these mammals are pests for farmers and those maintaining parks or sports fields. (While playing baseball in Grade 7 gym class, I hit my only home run and tripped over a gopher hole on the way to the home plate, ruining my victory).    
 
Gophers can improve cattle grazing areas
 
The negative impact Richardson ground squirrels have on crops is anecdotal, as there hasn’t been a lot of research into this area.
 
“Coexistence should be encouraged where possible,” said Dr. Hare, who sent me a copy of a paper he published with his former student Levi Newediuk and collaborator Isobel Waters, about the research they conducted on a farming property in Westbourne, Manitoba, which showed that Richardson’s ground squirrel foraging improves the diversity and quality of prairie grassland plants that cattle graze upon.
 
How to humanely control gopher populations
 
“It’s hard for me to put humane and exterminate together in the same sentence,” Dr. Hare wrote in his email. “That said, even I would begrudgingly admit that there are certain land uses where it is not safe to have the landscape riddled with ground squirrel burrows, where concerns over crop damage take precedence to conservation of this wildlife species, or where burrowing and further excavation of burrow systems by ground squirrel predators like badgers can cause damage to farm implements.”
 
The no-kill way
 
He says the ideal way to exercise control is to prevent overgrazing and rotate land use on a multi-year basis to allow tall growing plants to spread across what was grazing land.
 
Ground squirrels don’t do well in tall grass because they can’t see when predators are coming.
 
Live traps or shooting
 
Alternatively, people can live trap the ground squirrels and, under the direction of a veterinarian, humanely euthanize the animals.
 
“Though this may prove impractical and too costly for agriculturists (and) park managers to employ,” said Dr. Hare. “In such cases, shooting is to my mind more humane given that death is more immediate than with poisoned baits, and shooting avoids collateral damage to other wildlife that scavenge carcasses of dead squirrels.”
 
The resiliency of gophers
 
The fact that humans see Richardson ground squirrels as vermin, to me, speaks to their resilience as a species, since as humans, we basically took over their natural habitat with agricultural fields and urban centres. Other ground animals, like burrowing owls, aren’t as adaptable and are now endangered.
 
Dr. Hare said ground squirrels do well in parks, pastures, and recreation areas because when we mow long grass, we remove all the predator-hiding spots.
 
“We create perfect ground squirrel habitat,” said Dr. Hare, adding that these creatures have evolved to produce large litters to help ensure their survival.
 
The fact that they spend most of their lives underground also helps with their resiliency.
 
To learn more about the Richardson ground squirrel, check out the website of Dr. Gail R. Michner at the University of Lethbridge, which was recommended to me by Dr. Hare. The information on that website helped me put together this issue.
 
If you found this issue interesting, you might also enjoy an earlier issue of The Flatlander—Where do the buffalo roam these days?


A red-tailed hawk, one of a number of predators that hunt gophers. GETTY IMAGES.

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