Here’s an excerpt from Meriwether Lewis’s Journal written April 9, 1805. I suspect many of you will quickly identify the animal that had been attracting Lewis’s curiosity.
“The little hillocks which are thrown up by these animals have much the appearance of ten or twelve pounds of loose earth poured out of a vessel on the surface of the plain. In the state they leave them you can discover no hole through which they throw out this earth; but by removing the loose earth gently you may discover that the soil has been broken in a circle manner for about an inch and a half in diameter; where it appears looser than the adjacent surface, and is certainly the place through which the earth has been thrown out, though the operation is performed without leaving any visible appearance.”
Lewis, was of course, describing the workings of the northern pocket gopher. Lewis writes in his journal that Clark had recently seen one, and that he himself had observed the work of the animal on the prairies and plains but had not actually seen one. These observations of the gophers near the mouth of the Knife River may be the first written descriptions of the species.
It is interesting to note that the pocket gopher is an animal which is familiar to most everybody, but few of us have ever seen one, and probably never will. Ask most North Dakotans about gophers and you will likely get a response about striped gophers and flickertails. These two species are more correctly called ground squirrels, the thirteen lined, and Richardson’s respectively. It is a common misnomer. Pocket gophers are in a different family of rodents than are the ground squirrels.
Pocket gophers are dark brown to grayish, about 8 inches long, have small eyes and ears, buck teeth, and long front claws for digging. The “pocket” is a reference to their fur-lined pockets on the outside of each cheek for carrying food.
As many of you know, when pocket gophers start dining on the salad bar of your lawn, alfalfa field, pasture, or golf course they can quickly wear out their welcome. Visions of Bill Murray in “Caddyshack” appear, and perhaps another battle of wits between humans and Mr. Gopher commences.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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