Backyard Engineers: A Look at Pocket Gophers and Their Impact on Soil Health

Every animal, including humans, plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy environment on Earth. We tend to place the animals around us into categories, such as dangerous, beautiful, or a pest. Some environmentalists and scientists consider these classifications as a form of bias called speciesism.

Pocket gophers have long been considered a pest. Living primarily underground, they build extensive tunnels, eating roots along the way and pushing dirt up into mounds that turn a backyard into a lumpy mess that looks bad and is hard to mow.

A new look at the pocket gopher has revealed a different opinion of their life’s activities that acknowledges their role in the health of the soil beneath us.

What Are Pocket Gophers?

Pocket gophers are small burrowing rodents that live primarily in the Midwest and western states as well as three southern states: Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. They are expertly built for their almost exclusively underground life. They are named pocket gophers because they have fur-lined cheek pouches that are open on the outside and turn inside out for emptying and cleaning. The pockets are used for gathering and carrying their food.

Like all rodents, their incisor teeth grow continually throughout their lives and are maintained at a manageable length by their gnawing. Other physical adaptations that aid their underground life include their clawed paws used for digging, sensitive whiskers for feeling around in the dark and lips that can close behind their incisors so they don’t get dirt in their mouths while they dig. Their almost hairless tails work as sensors, allowing them to run backward almost as fast as they can run forward.

Pocket Gopher Benefits to Their Local Ecosystems

Pocket gophers are herbivores, surviving primarily on roots and smaller vegetation they pull into their tunnel when pushing dirt out. In harsh winter regions, they emerge from their tunnels to gnaw on tree bark if food is scarce. In this natural habitat, pocket gophers serve a positive role in their local ecosystem. As they go about their daily lives of digging and eating, pocket gophers aerate the soil, disperse seeds, lessen soil erosion, fertilize the ground, and even create habitats for other creatures.

A typical pocket gopher tunnel system has one main tunnel with many tunnel offshoots connected to it where they store food, mate, raise their young, and defecate. And, because their tunnel system can cover hundreds and sometimes thousands of square feet, they can significantly benefit the soil.

Soil Aeration

Pocket gophers move a huge amount of soil under the ground. One gopher can move about one ton of soil to the surface in a year. The loosened soil made by digging these tunnels and moving soil to the surface aerates the soil, making it easier for roots to spread deep into the ground. This is especially beneficial on land where livestock or farm machinery such as tractors continually tamp down the soil.

Seed Dispersal

The fresh and aerated soil pocket gophers push out of their tunnels create new seeding areas for nearby plants that drop their seeds or when seeds are carried by the wind. In addition, the new seeding areas may contribute to an increase in the variety of plants grown in that area.

Blocking Erosion

When it rains, pocket gopher tunnels temporarily hold water that would otherwise run over the surface of a lawn, meadow, or field, causing erosion and loss of topsoil. This is especially noticeable in mountainous regions where snowmelt forms strong streams of water, carrying soil and small plants along with it.


Some gophers set up a specific place within their tunnels to defecate, while others freely scatter their feces throughout their tunnels as they dig and move dirt and soil. Either way, the waste they leave deep behind fertilizes the soil.

Habitat Creation for Other Species

Abandoned tunnels provide a ready-made habitat for other animals, such as salamanders, toads, lizards, and other species that like cool, moist environments.

An Environmentally Sound Perspective

While many people will continue to see the pocket gopher as a nuisance, it’s important to remember that every living thing has a purpose to contribute to making our ecosystem called Earth balanced.

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