Ayoung Bottaâ€™s Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) arrived at California Wildlife Center (CWC) late in January, its 40th patient of the new year, after being caught by a cat. Gophersâ€™ encounters with cats are frequently fatal, with roaming pet and feral domestic cats killing an average of 2 billion birds and 12 billion mammals each year in the United States.
Thereâ€™s a tendency for people to focus on the negative aspects of sharing our neighborhoods with gophers, as they make their tunnels in lawns and gardens and pile up mounds of disturbed earth. But gophers are native animals who in nature play a beneficial role in the ecosystem. Their digging helps aerate the soil, which is especially important when the ground has been compacted by livestock or machines. Their tunnels become habitats for other species, catch rainwater runoff, and their droppings help fertilize the soil. The gophers themselves are part of the circle of life; they are prey to carnivores like hawks, bobcats, owls, and coyotes.
Gophers are well adapted to their lifestyle. Their big, growing incisors can gnaw tough roots into digestible bits. They can close their lips behind the incisors, allowing the teeth to help dig through packed soil. In fact, these teeth are the primary digging tools for this species, having a thick layer of enamel to make them more durable when in harder packed ground. After the teeth help break up the dirt, they move it back using the big claws on their front feet, kicking it behind them with their back legs. Long sensitive whiskers help navigate the dark tunnels.
Spending most of their time underground, they can pull entire plants into the burrow by the roots, so they can eat in safety.
California Wildlife Center is a 501(c)3 non-profit that provides medical and rehabilitative care to more than 4,300 sick, injured, and orphaned native California animals every year.