Pocket gophers (Figure 1) are so named because of the fur-lined pouches outside of the mouth on each side of the face (Figure 2).
The pockets, which can be turned inside out, are used for carrying food. Pocket gophers are fossorial (burrowing) rodents that spend most of their lives underground.
Thirty-five species of pocket gophers, represented by 5 genera, occupy the Western Hemisphere. Fourteen species and 3 genera exist in the US. The major features that differentiate the genera are the size of the forefeet, claws, and front surfaces of the chisel-like incisors. Several other mammals may be confused with pocket gophers because of variations in local terminology. For example, in the southeastern US, pocket gophers are called “salamanders” (derived from the term sandy mounder), while the term “gopher” refers to a tortoise.
Pocket gophers generally are not protected by federal or state law.
Pocket gophers are medium-sized rodents that range in size from 5 to 14 inches long. Adult males are larger than females. Pocket gophers have small external ears and eyes. The whiskers on the face are sensitive to touch and assist pocket gophers while traveling about in dark tunnels. The tail is sparsely haired, serves as a guide to backward movements, and is important in thermoregulation. The fur is fine and soft. Color is highly variable and ranges from nearly black to pale brown to almost white, but generally align with soil coloration. The great variability in size and color of pocket gophers is attributed to a low rate of dispersal and limited gene flow, which results in adaptations to local conditions.
Thomomys have smooth-faced incisors and small forefeet with small claws (Figure 3a). Northern pocket gophers (T. talpoides) are 6½ to 10 inches long (including head and body, but not tail). The fur is variable in color but often is yellow-brown. Botta’s pocket gophers (T. bottae) are extremely variable in size and color. They are 5 to 13½ inches long and color varies from white to black.
Figure 3a. Characteristics of Thomomys pocket gophers, including smooth incisors, small front feet, and small claws. Image by PCWD.
Figure 3b. Characteristics of Geomys pocket gophers, including doubly grooved incisors, large front feet, and large claws. Image by PCWD.
Figure 3c. Characteristics of Pappogeomys pocket gophers, including singly grooved incisors, large front feet, and large claws. Image by PCWD.
Geomys (Figure 3b) have 2 grooves on each upper incisor and large forefeet and claws. Plains pocket gophers (G. bursarius) are the largest pocket gophers in North America and can weigh up to 1 pound.
They are 7½ to 14 inches in length. The fur is usually brown but may be black. Geomys bursarius recently was divided into 3 species, G. jugossicularis halli, G. lutescens, and G. bursarius halli. The latter is the largest species and can weigh up to 14 ounces. Desert pocket gophers (G. arenarius) are brown and vary from 9 to 11 inches in length. Texas pocket gophers (G. personatus) also are brown and 9 to 13 inches in length. Southeastern pocket gophers (G. pinetis) exhibit shades of brown, depending on soil color, and are 9 to 13 inches in length.
Pappogeomys (Figure 3c) have a single groove on each upper incisor and have large forefeet with large claws. Yellow-faced pocket gophers (P. castanops) are 5½ to 7 inches long. Fur color varies from pale yellow to dark red-brown. The underparts may be white to bright yellow-buff. Some hairs on the back and top of the head are dark-tipped.
Pocket gophers are found only in the Western Hemisphere. They range from Panama in the south to Alberta in the north. Plains pocket gophers are found in the central plains from Canada south through Texas and Louisiana (Figure 4a). Botta’s pocket gophers are found in most of the southern half of the western US (Figure 4a).
Northern pocket gophers exist throughout most of the northwest US (Figure 4b).
Yellow-faced pocket gophers occur from Mexico, along the western edge of Texas, eastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and into Oklahoma (Figure 4b).
Figure 4a. Distributions of the plains pocket gopher (dark) and Botta’s pocket gopher (light) in North America. Image by PCWD.
Figure 4b. Distributions of the northern pocket gopher (dark) and yellow-faced pocket gopher (light) in North America. Image by PCWD.
Figure 4c. Distributions of the southeastern pocket gopher (dark) and southern pocket gopher (light) in North America. Image by PCWD.
Southeastern pocket gophers are found in northern and central Florida, southern Georgia, and southeastern Alabama (Figure 4c).
Southern pocket gophers primarily exist in Central America, but occur in extreme southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona (Figure 4c). Desert pocket gophers occur only in southwestern New Mexico and the extreme western edge of Texas. Mazama pocket gophers, mountain pocket gophers, and Camas pocket gophers have more limited distributions in the extreme western US.
Voice and Sounds
Pocket gophers rarely are seen or heard. They may squeal when caught in traps or by predators.
Tracks and Signs
Pocket gophers leave mounds of soil on the surface of the ground. The mounds usually are fan-shaped and tunnel entrances are plugged to keep intruders out of burrows.
Mounds made by pocket gophers are distinguished from those made by moles by the shape (Figures 5a and 5b).
Mounds made by moles are round and conical because moles push the soil directly up, where it falls evenly in all directions. In contrast, pocket gophers approach the soil surface at a 45° angle so the mound is in the shape of a tear drop.
Pocket gophers also create hollow tubes of soil aboveground called “casts” (Figure 5c). Casts are seen in spring following a winter with significant snow fall.