Natural La Jolla: Pocket gophers spend time digging intricate burrows



Last week, I spotted a little furry creature poking out of its burrow in the middle of a manicured lawn — it was a pocket gopher!

Botta’s pocket gophers (Thomomys bottae) are native to California and are mainly nocturnal rodents related to beavers, squirrels, chipmunks and rats. You will more likely be able to spot their presence based on fresh fan-shaped dirt mounds, as they are not often seen above ground. They prefer to stay out of sight of their predators within their intricate burrows. You won’t see more than three-quarters of their body outside the burrow and at any sign of movement, they dart back down below ground.

Pocket gophers are solitary animals, but are able to reproduce rapidly, with litters of 2-12 young, produced throughout the year, depending on the area. As such, they are often considered pests in farmland and in lawns but they improve soil quality by aerating the ground with their tunnels and also enriching the soil, by bringing plant material and seeds below ground.

Their burrows are extensive, with lateral runs just below the surface, deeper tunnels for drainage, and chambers lined with grasses that they use for a nest area. They may also have dirt-lined chambers where they store food. Only one pocket gopher lives in its burrow and they are quite territorial. The space between burrow systems is a kind of no man’s land, allowing each gopher to have its own territory.

Pocket gophers are so named because of their large cheek pouches, which extend from their mouth back to their backs. They can carry a lot of fresh plant material in these pouches deeper into their burrow where they will store it for later munching. Gophers don’t see or hear very well, but use their well-developed whiskers for sensing their environment.

Pocket gophers generally don’t live longer than a couple of years, probably due to the high rate of predation by coyotes, hawks, owls and other predators. However, this does not appear to affect their population sizes.

— Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation who writes about the flora and fauna of La Jolla. She may be reached by e-mail: