Harvest Season

Look: Pocket gophers farm like humans in one surprising way

But they’re not the only animals that know how to cultivate.

Veronica Selden

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Agriculture might seem like a uniquely human practice.

After all, the adaptation of farms and irrigation systems allowed our species to settle and build great civilizations.

So it might come as a surprise that some animals can also cultivate crops.

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Insects like leafcutter ants and ambrosia beetles sustain their own fungus gardens, having mastered the practice of agriculture millions of years before humans.

Researchers recently discovered that a common mammal — one that can be a menace to human farmers — might have a habit of growing its own food, too.

Veronica Selden

Writing this week in the journal Current Biology, researchers explain that common pocket gophers cultivate food sources underground in a way similar to human agriculture.

Norm Douglas

The gophers are known to yank entire plants underground and also snack on roots growing beneath the soil as they excavate hideaways.

But instead of destroying all the roots in their path, the gophers fertilize the ground with their poops, leading to better growing conditions.

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Healthier soil leaves the gophers with rows of food that consistently replenish — kind of like a farm.


When the researchers removed gophers from their tunnels for up to 44 days, they saw that the number of roots growing within their tunnels declined.

Current Biology/Selden et al

Though gophers don’t plant seeds, their methods of tending to crops might meet the definition of agriculture.

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“If farming requires that crops be planted, then gophers don’t qualify,” explains study co-author Francis E. Putz in a press release.

“But this seems like a far too narrow definition for anyone with a more horticultural perspective in which crops are carefully managed — such as fruit trees in forests — but not necessarily planted.”

Veronica Selden

At the very least, gophers appear to be master caretakers of the plants growing in their burrows.

And their strategies benefit the entire ecosystem so that creatures living above ground can also benefit from a plentiful harvest.

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