Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Plains pocket gopher

The plains pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius), the only gopher that lives in Illinois, is named for its fur-lined pockets, one under each jawbone, that carry food and nest materials.

In Illinois, the plains pocket gopher is found just east of the Mississippi River in St. Clair and Madison counties, then east and south of the Illinois River to its junction with the Kankakee River, and south of the Kankakee to the Indiana state line. Large rivers, like the Mississippi and Illinois, appear to be barriers to its distribution. The gophers inhabit areas where the soil is well-drained and there's an abundance of tuberous-rooted plants.

It is generally said that a pocket gopher's coat is the same color as the soil in which it lives. The Illinois population is unique among pocket gophers in the middle U. S., however, because its members are all black, regardless of the soil type they inhabit. Only the nose, feet, and the terminal half of the tail are white.

Plains pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius) stuffing its pocket with a snack. Photo by Michael Jeffords.

Gophers have large forefeet with five strongly-clawed toes to aid in digging and pushing dirt from the tunnel. Their toes are lined with bristles that may assist in moving dirt. The tail is bare near the tip to serve as a "feeler" when the animal backs up in the burrow. Pocket gophers can run backward almost as swiftly as forward. A unique adaptation allows the mouth to be closed behind the incisors; thus, these teeth can be used in the digging process. Gopher skin is loose and easily stretched, allowing the animal to readily reverse itself via a somersault in its narrow burrow.

The plains pocket gopher constructs underground burrows in which it spends nearly all of its life. With its front paws at either side of its face, the gopher shoves the dirt out of the tunnel, much like a small bulldozer. When the gopher is finished, the exit is plugged with tamped soil. Although the tunnels may be long, they are only 1.5 to 3 inches in diameter, just large enough for the gopher to get through. Each burrow includes a main nest, toilet chamber, and many food storage chambers. Here the gopher stores a variety of vegetable matter from roots, tubers, stems, and leaves--most any herb will do. Unlike the mole, pocket gophers are vegetarians and all of the many insects and other arthropods that may share its burrow are safe. Plains pocket gophers are solitary except during the breeding season.

Only a single litter is produced each year and one to six young are born between early March and early May. A newborn gopher is a fat, stubby creature with short legs and a tail; its naked dark skin appears to be too big and hangs loosely in many wrinkles and folds. The eyes and ears are sealed shut. By five weeks the eyes open and within two months the young gophers are on their own, building tunnels, working and reworking the soil--nature's bulldozers.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology.

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Last Modified 3/19/96

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