Are gophers farmers? This is a question you didn’t know had to be answered.

There are probably several things that come to mind when you think of farmers. To name a few: overalls, straw hats, tanned forearms; hay bales, tractors, seeds. All very farmer-friendly. What about fur, whiskers and big front teeth? Probably not.

But in a paper published Monday, researchers say maybe, just maybe, the southeast pocket gopher, a small burrowing rodent best known in many communities as a pest, could be considered a rudimentary type. of farmer. By digging long underground tunnels that promote plant growth and allow fairly easy root nibbling, these pocket gophers would be, as the article puts it, “the first farmed non-human mammal.”

“Because they provide and cultivate that optimal environment for growth – that’s what we think makes them farmers,” said Veronica Selden, who earned her bachelor’s degree in May from the University of Florida and led the research.

Francis E. Putz, a University of Florida biologist and co-author of the paper, said, “Agriculture is just another piece of the pocket gopher’s natural history.”

The species of the animal kingdom adopt an agricultural behavior. Some of the most advanced are ants and beetles that harvest mushrooms, weed, water, protect and plant crops. But answering that eternal question – Are they farmers? – can be difficult.

“I would simply define farming as anyone who has control of their land and can decide what they want to grow,” said Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, an organization that advocates for communities. agricultural workers in Florida. rural Florida. “We make a distinction between farmers and farm workers,” he added. “Farmers can make decisions for themselves.”

Free will probably cannot be attributed to pocket gophers. So not farmers in that sense.

“When it comes to qualifications, being a farmer is a pretty nebulous term,” said Kate Downes, outreach director for New York FarmNet, an organization that consults with farmers in the state. “We don’t have a hard and fast rule: if you identify yourself as a farmer, we’ll work with you. »

Pocket gophers don’t identify as farmers, so not farmers in that sense either.

When asked, the Florida Farm Bureau directed me to their guide to statutory exemptions and transportation laws for farming. “‘Agriculture’ means the science and art of producing plants and animals useful to man,” reads the first page of the document.

Are pocket gophers humans? Nope? Not the farmers.

How are pocket waffle farmers, then? Dr. Putz and Ms. Selden offer a two-part argument.

First, pocket gophers, which are solitary and spend most of their time underground, promote plant and root growth through their tunnels. By digging, rodents circulate air under the plants, increasing the oxygen in the soil. This activity helps the roots absorb more nutrients. The researchers also found that ground squirrels disperse their waste in their tunnels, which could help fertilize the soil.

Second, all that time pocket gophers spend underground is tiring. Digging one meter underground uses thousands of times more energy than walking the same distance. Dr. Putz and Ms. Selden wondered where all that energy came from.

By isolating a number of active tunnel systems, they found that the same burrowing activities that promoted plant growth allowed roots to grow directly out of the moist tunnels. The gophers regularly ate the ingrown roots, which could supply more than 20% of the animals’ daily caloric needs and compensate for some of the energy lost during the burrowing process.

The researchers also suggest that certain particularly dense root systems could provide the rest of the food for the animals. “I think one of the reasons they have these extremely long tunnels is that there are places in these systems that produce a lot of food,” Dr. Putz said.

JT Pynne, a biologist with the Georgia Wildlife Federation who specializes in studying southeast pocket gophers, said of their tunnel, “I think if we loosen the definition of agriculture, we can call it farming, but you’ll have to apply it. across the herbivore spectrum.

Dr. Pynne notes that the animal makes “better ground” with its tunnels and “builds its environment to improve its habitat”, but ultimately its behavior is not intentional enough to cultivate. “Based on all my experience, I don’t see them advanced enough,” said Dr. Pynne, who found that ground squirrels glow under ultraviolet light.

The authors of the article argue that “farmer” is a somewhat contrived concept. Neither of them seemed to want to choose this hill to die on. “We just thought the way they grow the roots in the tunnels is enough to count them as farmers,” Ms Selden said.

What was more important to them was learning another curious fact about how these animals fit into their ecosystem. “If you just type ‘pocket gophers’ online, most of the entries are about how to kill them,” Dr Putz said. “I think the first step to caring about nature is knowing something about it.”

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