There are probably a few things that come to mind when you think of farmers. To list a few: overalls, straw hats, tanned forearms; bails of hay, tractors, seeds. All very farmer-friendly. What about fur, whiskers and large front teeth? Probably not.
But in a paper published on Monday, researchers argue that maybe, just maybe, the southeastern pocket gopher, a small burrowing rodent best known in many communities as a pest, could be considered a rudimentary kind of farmer. By digging long tunnels underground that promote plant growth and allow fairly easy root nibbling, these pocket gophers would be, as the paper put it, “the first farming nonhuman mammal.”
“Because they provide and cultivate this optimal environment for growth — that’s what we think makes them farmers,” said Veronica Selden, who earned her bachelor’s degree in May at the University of Florida and led the research.
Francis E. Putz, a biologist at the University of Florida and a co-author of the paper, said, “Farming is just another element of the pocket gopher’s natural history.”
Species across the animal kingdom engage in agricultural behavior. Some of the most advanced are fungus-harvesting ants and beetles that weed, water, protect and plant crops. But answering that eternal question — Are they farmers? — can be difficult.
“I would just define farming as any individual having control over their land and being able to decide what they want to grow,” said Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, the general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, an organization that advocates on behalf of farmworker communities in rural Florida. “We make a distinction between farmers and farmworkers,” he added. “Farmers can make decisions for themselves.”
Free will probably can’t be attributed to pocket gophers. So, not farmers in this sense.
“As far as qualifications go, being a farmer is kind of a nebulous term,” said Kate Downes, the outreach director for New York FarmNet, an organization that consults with the state’s farmers. “We don’t have a hard and fast rule: If you identify as a farmer, we will work with you.”
Pocket gophers don’t identify as farmers, so not farmers in this sense, either.
When posed with the question, the Florida Farm Bureau directed me to its guide on statutory exemptions and transportation laws for agriculture. “‘Agriculture’ means the science and art of production of plants and animals useful to humans,” reads the first page of the document.
Are pocket gophers humans? No? Not farmers.
How are pocket gophers farmers, then? Dr. Putz and Ms. Selden offer a two-part argument.
First, pocket gophers, who are solitary and spend most of their time underground, promote plant and root growth with their tunneling. By digging, the rodents circulate air underneath plants, increasing oxygen in the soil. This activity helps the roots take in more nutrients. The researchers have also found that the gophers disperse their waste throughout their tunnels, which could help fertilize the soil.
Second, all that time pocket gophers spend underground is tiring. To burrow three feet down consumes thousands of times as much energy as it does to walk the same distance. Dr. Putz and Ms. Selden wondered where all of this energy was coming from.
By isolating a number of active tunnel systems, they found that the same burrowing activities that promoted plant growth allowed roots to grow straight into the open air of the humid tunnels. The gophers were regularly eating the ingrown roots, which could provide more than 20 percent of the animals’ daily caloric needs and make up for some of the energy lost in the burrowing process.
The researchers also suggest that some particularly dense root systems could provide the rest of the animals’ sustenance. “I think one of the reasons they have these massively long tunnels is there are some places in these systems that yield a lot of food,” Dr. Putz said.
J.T. Pynne, a biologist at the Georgia Wildlife Federation who specializes in the study of southeastern pocket gophers, said of their tunneling, “I think if we loosen the definition of farming, we can call it farming, but you’ll have to apply that across the entire spectrum of herbivores.”
Dr. Pynne notes that the animal does make “better soil” with its tunnels, and that it “engineers its surroundings to make its habitat better for itself,” but that in the end its behavior is not intentional enough to be farming. “Based on all my experience, I don’t see them being advanced enough,” said Dr. Pynne, who has found that the gophers glow under ultraviolet light.
The authors of the paper argue that “farmer” is a somewhat artificial concept. Neither seemed to want to pick that hill to die on. “We were just thinking that the way they cultivate 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 in ‘pocket gophers’ online, most of the entries are about how to kill them,” Dr. Putz said. “I think the first step of caring about nature is knowing something about it.”