Gopher in the Sun

Gophers, says Wikipedia, spend 90 percent of their life under ground. Today I was privileged to see, and to video, a few seconds of the other 10 percent. This individual darted partway out of its hole, a neat round puncture in the soil just outside the Burrowing Owl preserve. As its eyes probably weren’t adapted to the full sunlight, it didn’t see me at first, even though I and my tripod were standing almost on top of it. Only on its third or fourth dart-like exploration of the upper world did it register the monstrous towering machinery looming over it, and submerged forever.

This is probably a Botta’s Pocket Gopher, based on the Wikipedia article that describes it as native to and widely distributed in western North America. It’s named after Paul Emile Botta (1802-1870), a self-taught Italian/French naturalist who stopped briefly in California during a round-the-world voyage in the 1820s, and later became a celebrated archaeologist who looted northern Iraq of antiquities. In California, the rodent — the four-legged one — is often called the valley pocket gopher. The “pocket” comes from deep pouches on each side of its jaws, where the gopher can store sizable quantities of chewed food. The rodent finds an ambivalent reception among humans. Gardeners don’t appreciate its ability to feed underground by pulling plants down by their roots into its tunnels. On the other hand, those tunnels aerate and fertilize the soil and absorb groundwater.

Apart from breeding season, gophers generally live bachelor or bachelorette lives in their burrows, which they will defend aggressively. They do most of their digging with their specially hardened teeth, and can inflict serious injury with those weapons.

Gopher snakes, skunks, owls, hawks, egrets, herons, as well as dogs and feral cats are among the predators that threaten the gopher. In its defense, the gopher can produce four litters of up to twelve pups a year, and female pups can have pups of their own within three months after their birth. The population is not threatened.

These gophers are found in many places in the park, often in near proximity to burrows dug by ground squirrels. What happens when a gopher burrow and a squirrel burrow intersect? One of nature’s many mysteries.

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