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Geomys pinetis Rafinesque, 1806Southeastern Pocket Gopher
Federal Protection: No US federal protection
State Protection: Threatened
Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3
Element Locations Tracked in Biotics: Yes
SWAP High Priority Species (SGCN): Yes
Element Occurrences (EOs) in Georgia: 52
Habitat Summary for element in Georgia: Sandy well-drained soils in open pine woodlands with grassy or herbaceous groundcover; fields and grassy roadsides
Southeastern pocket gophers are cylindrical in body shape with a tan to brownish-gray coloration. The fossorial rodent has very small eyes and ears, and short hair. Males are slightly larger than females, but body size is dependent on soil type. Sex can be determined using external characteristics (visible mammae, scrotal males, etc.). Head and body length is 145-200 mm (5.7-7.8 in), the average length of its nearly naked tail is 70-105 mm (2.7-4.1 in), and the average weight is 135-208 g (4.7-7.3 oz), but they can be up to 360 g (12.7 oz). Powerful front legs and feet with long claws are used for digging extensive subterranean burrow systems in which they spend most of their time. Mounds of loose, sandy soil at the surface indicate the presence of burrows and earn these animals the nickname “sandy-mounders” or “salamanders.” Members of this family possess distinctive external fur-lined cheek pouches (pockets) used for transporting food, which is how they got their name. The lips close behind the protruding incisors, allowing it to gnaw underground without getting dirt in its mouth.
Sherman’s pocket gopher (G. p. fontanelus) was once thought to be a separate species, but it has disappeared from its only known location near Savannah. The eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus) is also entirely fossorial, but it is smaller and darker and does not possess external cheek pouches. Moles do not create surface mounds, but instead create surface level tunnels resembling eskers. They are insectivores and therefore lack the large gnawing incisors characteristic of rodents. Voles (Microtus spp.) and shrews (Blarina spp.) are much smaller and do not produce surface mounds.
Pocket gophers require loose, sandy, well-drained soil for burrow construction and an abundant supply of grasses and forbs for food. They are native to longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forests, particularly in rolling hills and sandhills within the upland Coastal Plain, but are often found in scrubby oaks, and on right-of-ways, roadsides, and hay fields. Frequent fires that favor the growth of groundcover plants improve habitat suitability. Most of the known remaining populations in Georgia are found in areas where natural longleaf forest and associated groundcover remains. However, in some instances they persist, at least temporarily, in heavily disturbed and manipulated habitats such as open pine plantations, lawns, roadsides, cattle pastures, and even agricultural fields. Mowing in these areas mimics some of the disturbance of frequent fires resulting in diverse grasses and forbs.
Pocket gophers primarily eat plant material, particularly roots and fleshy rhizomes that extend into their tunnel systems. They also consume green plant material collected from the surface near tunnel entrances. Considerable food caches are stored in chambers of the tunnel system. They can transport food materials within their cheek pouches and to carry food to their caches.
Southeastern pocket gophers are highly adapted for digging and life underground. Each individual spends almost its entire existence within its own burrow system. Systems can vary from a few inches to 3 feet below the surface. Pocket gopher burrow systems include chambers for food caches and bedding, as well as several foraging tunnels. Excavated soil is pushed to the surface every few feet through perpendicular tunnels at almost 45° angles to form mounds that generally outline the tunnel system. These lateral tunnels are tightly plugged after use to keep predators, such as pine snakes, out. Their tunnel building abilities make this species an ecosystem engineer, meaning they modify, create, or destroy their habitat in some fashion. Pocket gophers positively impact the ecosystem by aerating and cycling nutrients in the soil, increasing vegetation growth and diversity, and also providing shelter for many other species, some of which are also in decline. While on the surface, gophers are subject to avian, mammalian and reptilian predators. Pocket gophers are solitary and highly territorial, only coming together briefly for breeding. Female burrows tend to meander while male burrows are more linear. This enhances the opportunities for male burrows to intersect female burrows for occasional mating, which can happen at any time of the year, but tends to be more frequent in late winter and summer. Females on average have 1-3 young 1-2 times per year. The average home range has been found to be 921.9 m2 (Warren et al. 2017a). Southeastern pocket gophers have a high survival rate, in some areas over 2 years, when in optimal habitat, most likely due to their fossorial lifestyle.
The presence of pocket gophers is easily detected by the distinctive mounds that mark the tunnel systems. Mounds can be seen best after a prescribed fire, but can be seen otherwise by either walking around or driving and looking out for mounds. Pocket gophers are active throughout the year and regularly maintain their tunnels, as indicated by mounts of deposited fresh soil. However, fire ant mounds might be confused with pocket gopher mounds in some instances, but fire ants maintain their mounds so they are often more round and granular and porous. Since little is known about this species, an iNaturalist project site has been created to help identify areas where the southeastern pocket gophers are present (http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/southeastern-pocket-gophers). Pocket gophers have been successfully captured using live traps as described by Hart (1973), Connior and Risch (2009) and Moore et al. (2019), as well as H. B. Sherman aluminum folding rat/mouse traps placed upside-down.
The historical general range of the pocket gopher includes the entire Coastal Plain of Georgia, most of the Coastal Plain in Alabama, and approximately the northern two-thirds of Florida. However, historically occupied areas would have included only sites of suitable habitat, primarily determined by soil type. Currently occupied areas are much further restricted and isolated. Large streams, roads, and other types of unsuitable habitat serve as barriers to dispersal.
Pocket gophers can be locally abundant in suitable habitat , but are now absent from a large portion of the historical range. Habitat loss appears to be the primary factor causing the decline in pocket gopher populations. This species also has low reproductive rates, which further contributes to their decline. Longleaf pine ecosystems have declined dramatically due to fire suppression and habitat alterations. As this ecosystem declines, numerous species that depend on this ecosystem also decline, including the southeastern pocket gopher. These highly territorial animals have poor above-ground dispersal ability, with roads, rivers, and bottomlands serving as barriers. Populations are increasingly isolated through habitat fragmentation, making them vulnerable to inbreeding, local extinction, and hindering recolonization. Pocket gophers have sometimes been targeted as pests because their burrows are considered to be hazardous or unsightly and because of their occasional damage to agricultural crops. However, it is unlikely that a pocket gopher will survive in corn, cotton, or peanuts so there is little evidence of them being agriculture pests in the Southeast. The southeastern pocket gopher is listed as a high priority species in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.
Most known populations are on private land and are unprotected, and most are very small and vulnerable. A recent survey of 272 (of a total of 297 historical) sites in 41 counties by Scott (2008) documented pocket gopher presence at 65 (24%) in 18 counties. An additional 41 occupied sites were documented during the survey, including sites in two additional counties. Five small areas of relatively high density were identified in Baker, Early, Taylor, Camden, and Burke counties. Areas such as these, like Ichauway in Baker County, possess large populations of southeastern pocket gophers that seem to not be threatened. Especially on this property, it is most likely due to the management practices that favor longleaf pine ecosystems and therefore pocket gophers. Additionally, some of the quail plantations in Thomas County are known to harbor a relatively good population. Another study (J.T. Pynne, unpublished data) did distance surveys and found that 19/72 (25.3%) sites were occupied in Georgia, with locally abundant populations in the quail plantation of the Redhills and in Baker County, as well as Fort Benning, Sandhills WMA, and several private properties in surrounding counties.
Conservation of this species should include beneficial management of known existing populations and reintroduction to areas of suitable, secure habitat. Beneficial management predominately includes maintenance fires or another type of understory disturbance. As new habitat is restored, southeastern pocket gophers may need to be translocated, since habitat fragmentation could impede natural colonization of restored habitat. Pocket gophers undergo major stress during translocations and should be released with the assumption of approximately 56% mortality (J.T. Pynne, unpublished data). Soil has been found to be a key factor in the suitability of southeastern pocket gopher habitat. Further restoration of suitable soil in addition to restoring longleaf pine ecosystems will benefit this species. Without a basic understanding of ecological requirements, it is difficult to create a conservation strategy. Currently the ecology of the southeastern pocket gopher is poorly understood due to its fossorial nature, thus this species would also benefit from further research.
Baker, R. J., R. D. Bradley, and L.R. McAliley, Jr. 2003. Pocket gophers. Pps 276–287 in G.A. Feldhamer, B.C. Thompson, and J.A. Chapman, eds. Wild mammals of North America Second Edition. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, MD.
Connior M.B. and T.S. Risch. 2009. Live trap for pocket gophers. Southwestern Naturalist 54:100-103.
Ford, C. R. 1980. The status and preservation of the colonial pocket gopher. M. S. Thesis University of Georgia, and final report to the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources.
Golley, F. B. 1962. Mammals of Georgia. Univ. of Georgia Press. 218 pp.
Hart, E.B. 1971. A simple and effective live trap for pocket gophers. American Midland Naturalist 89:200-202.
Jordan, J.R., Jr. 2004. Southeastern pocket gopher. Pp 204-205 in Alabama Wildlife, Vol 3. Imperiled amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. R. E. Mirarchi, M. A. Bailey, T. M. Haggerty, and T. L. Best, eds.
Kovarik, P. W., P. E. Skelley, K. A. Milla, R. H. Turnbow, and D. L. Capers. 2000. Distribution patterns of insects inhabiting burrows of the southeastern pocket gopher. . A contribution from the Bioinformatics Project. M. D. Hubbard, ed. Florida A & M Univ.
Laerm, J. 1981. A survey of the status, distribution, and abundance of potentially threatened and endangered vertebrate species in Georgia. Part VI: The mammals. Final report to the Georgia DNR
Laerm, J., B. J. Freeman, L. J. Vitt, J. H. Rappole, and L. E. Logan. 1981. The Status of Georgia’s Nongame Vertebrates. Pp. 166 – 179 in Proc. of the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Symposium, R. R. Odum and J. W. Guthrie, eds. Georgia DNR Tech Bull WL 5
Moore, N.B., S.I. Duncan, E.I. Parsons, Pynne, J.T, J.D. Austin, L.M. Conner, S.B. Castleberry, R.A. Gitzen, R.A. McCleery. 2019. A new live trap for pocket gophers. Wildlife Society Bulletin 43:178-181.
Pynne, J.T, S.B. Castleberry, L.M. Conner, E.I. Parsons, R.A. Gitzen, J.D. Austin, S.I. Duncan, R.A. McCleery. 2019. Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) predation on a southeastern pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis). Southeastern Naturalist 18:N34–N36.
Romañach, S.S., E.W. Seabloom, and O.J. Reichman. 2007. Costs and benefits of pocket gopher foraging: Linking behavior and physiology. Ecology 88:2047-2057.
Scott, Jay. 2008. Survey of the Current Distribution of the Southeastern Pocket Gopher (Geomys pinetis) in Georgia. Final report to the Georgia DNR. 42 pp.
Skelley, P.E., and P.W. Kovarik. 2001. Insect surveys in the Southeast: Investigating relictual entomofauna. Florida Entomologist 84:552-555.
Warren, A.E., L.M. Conner, S.B. Castleberry, and D. Markewitz. 2017a. Home range, survival, and activity patterns of the southeastern pocket gopher: implications for translocation. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 8:544-557.
Warren, A.E., S.B. Castleberry, and D. Markewitz. 2017b. Understory vegetation structure and soil characteristics of Geomys pinetis (southeastern pocket gopher) habitat in Southwestern Georgia. American Midland Naturalist 178:215-225.
Whitaker, J. O., Jr., and W. J. Hamilton. 1998. Mammals of the eastern United States. Cornell Univ. Press. 583 pp.
Winchester, B. H., R. S. Delotelle, J. R. Newman, and J. T. McClave. 1978. Ecology and management of the colonial pocket gopher: a progress report. Pages 173 – 184 in R. R. Odom and L. Landers, eds. Proceedings of the rare and endangered wildlife symposium, Georgia DNR Tech Bull WL 4
J. Ozier, Jan. 2010: original account
K. Owers, May 2010: updated status and ranks, added pictures
S. Krueger, March 2020: updated for final review