Gophers are heavily built, and most are moderately large, ranging from 12 to 30 cm (4.7 to 12 in) in length, and weighing a few hundred grams. A few species reach weights approaching 1 kg (2.2 lb). Males are always larger than the females and can be nearly double their weight. Most gophers have brown fur which often closely matches the color of the soil in which they live. Their most characteristic feature is their large cheek pouches, from which the word “pocket” in their name derives. These pouches are fur-lined, and can be turned inside out. They extend from the side of the mouth well back onto the shoulders. They have small eyes and a short, hairy tail which they use to feel around tunnels when they walk backwards.
All pocket gophers are burrowers. They are larder hoarders, and their cheek pouches are used for transporting food back to their burrows. Gophers can collect large hoards. Their presence is unambiguously announced by the appearance of mounds of fresh dirt about 20 cm (7.9 in) in diameter. These mounds will often appear in vegetable gardens, lawns, or farms, as gophers like moist soil. They also enjoy feeding on vegetables. For this reason, some species are considered agricultural pests. They may also damage trees in forests. Although they will attempt to flee when threatened, they may attack other animals, including cats and humans, and can inflict serious bites with their long, sharp teeth.
Pocket gophers are solitary outside of the breeding season, aggressively maintaining territories that vary in size depending on the resources available. Males and females may share some burrows and nesting chambers if their territories border each other, but in general, each pocket gopher inhabits its own individual tunnel system.
Depending on the species and local conditions, pocket gophers may have a specific annual breeding season, or may breed repeatedly through the year. Each litter typically consists of two to five young, although this may be much higher in some species. The young are born blind and helpless, and are weaned at around forty days.
There has been much debate among taxonomists about which races of pocket gopher should be recognised as full species, and the following list cannot be regarded as definitive.
- Family Geomyidae
- Genus Cratogeomys; some authors treat this genus as a subgenus of Pappogeomys.
- Yellow-faced Pocket Gopher (Cratogeomys castanops)
- Oriental Basin Pocket Gopher (C. fulvescens)
- Smoky Pocket Gopher (C. fumosus)
- Llano Pocket Gopher (C. gymnurus)
- Merriam´s Pocket Gopher (C. merriami)
- Querétaro Pocket Gopher (C. neglectus)
- Naked-nosed Pocket Gopher (C. tylorhinus)
- Zinser´s Pocket Gopher (C. zinseri)
- Genus Geomys – eastern pocket gophers; principally found in the south-western United States, east of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
- Geomys arenarius; two subspecies, the Desert and White Sands Pocket Gophers
- Attwater’s Pocket Gopher (G. attwateri)
- Plains Pocket Gopher (G. bursarius); two subspecies
- Jones’ Pocket Gopher (G. knoxjonesi)
- Geomys personatus; 5 subspecies including the Texas, Davis, Maritime and Carrizo Springs Pocket Gophers
- Geomys pinetis; 4 subspecies, the Southeastern, Cumberland Island, Sherman’s and Goff’s Pocket Gophers
- Geomys texensis; 2 subspecies, including the LLano Pocket Gopher
- Genus Orthogeomys – giant pocket gophers or taltuzas; found in Mexico, Central America and Colombia.
- Chiriqui Pocket Gopher (Orthogeomys cavator)
- Cherrie´s Pocket Gopher (O. cherriei)
- Oaxacan Pocket Gopher (O. cuniculus)
- Darien Pocket Gopher (O. dariensis)
- Giant Pocket Gopher (O. grandis)
- Variable Pocket Gopher (O. heterodus)
- Hispid Pocket Gopher (O. hispidus)
- Big Pocket Gopher (O. lanius)
- Nicaraguan Pocket Gopher (O. matagalpae)
- Thaeler´s Pocket Gopher (O. thaeleri)
- Underwood´s Pocket Gopher (O. underwoodi)
- Genus Pappogeomys; found in Mexico.
- Alcorn´s Pocket Gopher (Pappogeomys alcorni)
- Buller´s Pocket Gopher (P. bulleri)
- Genus Thomomys – western pocket gophers; widely distributed in North America, extending into the northwestern US, Canada and the southeastern US.
- Thomomys bottae; many subspecies, including the Botta’s, Fish Spring, Bonneville, Clear Lake, San Antonio, Pistol River, Mount Ellen, Guadalupe, Limpia, Mearns’, Stansbury Island, Antelope Island, Cebolleta, Salinas, Skull Valley, Swasey Springs, Harquahala and Limpia Greek Pocket Gophers.
- Camas Pocket Gopher (T. bulbivorus)
- Wyoming Pocket Gopher (T. clusius)
- Idaho Pocket Gopher (T. idahoensis)
- Mazama Pocket Gopher (T. mazama); several subspecies including the Western, Gold Beach, Olympic, and Tacoma Pocket Gophers.
- Mountain Pocket Gopher (T. monticola)
- Northern Pocket Gopher (T. talpoides); very widely distributed; several subspecies including the Cheyenne Northern Pocket Gopher
- Townsend´s Pocket Gopher (T. townsendii)
- Southern Pocket Gopher (T. umbrinus)
- Genus Zygogeomys
- Michoacan Pocket Gopher or Tuza (Zygogeomys trichopus)
- Genus Cratogeomys; some authors treat this genus as a subgenus of Pappogeomys.
A mole’s diet primarily consists of earthworms and other small invertebrates found in the soil and also a variety of nuts. Because their saliva contains a toxin that can paralyze earthworms, moles are able to store their still living prey for later consumption. They construct special underground “larders” for just this purpose; researchers have discovered such larders with over a thousand earthworms in them. Before eating earthworms, moles pull them between their squeezed paws to force the collected earth and dirt out of the worm’s gut.
Although the mole can be eaten, the taste is said to be deeply unpleasant.
The eyes of moles and of some burrowing rodents are rudimentary in size, and in some cases are quite covered by skin and fur. This state of the eyes is probably due to gradual reduction from disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection. In South America, a burrowing rodent, the tuco-tuco, or Ctenomys, is even more subterranean in its habits than the mole; and I was assured by a Spaniard, who had often caught them, that they were frequently blind. One which I kept alive was certainly in this condition, the cause, as appeared on dissection, having been inflammation of the nictitating membrane. As frequent inflammation of the eyes must be injurious to any animal, and as eyes are certainly not necessary to animals having subterranean habits, a reduction in their size, with the adhesion of the eyelids and growth of fur over them, might in such case be an advantage; and if so, natural selection would aid the effects of disuse. (Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Laws of Variation)
Since the modern synthesis, Darwin’s suggestion that the mole’s eye became small “probably due to gradual reduction from disuse…” is no longer fully accepted by modern biologists. The Lamarckian mechanism by which increased or decreased use of an organ could influence its reproduction, which was accepted by Darwin, has been replaced by an appreciation that natural selection and random genetic variation (genetic drift) are the primary drivers.
Voles are small rodents that grow to 4–8 inches depending on species. They can have 5–10 litters per year. Gestation lasts for 3 weeks and the young voles reach sexual maturity in a month. As a result of this exponential growth, vole populations can grow very large within a very short period of time. Since litters average 5–10 young, a single pregnant vole in a yard can result in a hundred or more active voles in less than a year.
Voles are commonly mistaken for other small animals. Moles, gophers, mice, rats and even shrews have similar characteristics and behavioral tendencies. Since voles will commonly use burrows with many exit holes, they can be mistaken for gophers or some kind of ground squirrel. Voles can create and will oftentimes utilize old abandoned mole tunnels thus confusing the land owner into thinking that moles are active. When voles find their way into the home, they are readily misidentified as mice or young rats. In fact, voles are unique and best described as being a little bit like all the other animals they are so commonly thought to be.
They will readily thrive on small plants. Like shrews they will eat dead animals and like mice or rats, they can live on most any nut or fruit. Additionally, voles will target plants more than most other small animals. It is here where their presence is mostly evident. Voles will readily “girdle” or eat the bark of small trees and ground cover much like a porcupine. This girdling can easily kill young plants and is not healthy for trees or other shrubs.
Voles love to eat succulent root systems and will burrow under plants or ground cover they are particularly fond of and eat away until the plant is dead. Bulbs in the ground are another favorite target for voles; their excellent burrowing and tunnelling gives them access to sensitive areas without clear or early warning. A vole problem is often only identifiable after they have destroyed a number of plants.
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The best-known rat species are the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) and the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus). The group is generally known as the Old World rats or true rats, and originated in Asia. Rats are bigger than most Old World mice, which are their relatives, but seldom weigh over 500 grams (1 lb) in the wild.
The term “rat” is also used in the names of other small mammals which are not true rats. Examples include the North American pack rats, a number of species loosely called kangaroo rats, and others. Rats such as the Bandicoot rat(Bandicota bengalensis) are murine rodents related to true rats, but are not members of the genus Rattus. Male rats are called bucks, unmated females are called does, pregnant or parent females are called dams, and infants are calledkittens or pups. A group of rats is either referred to as a pack or a mischief.
In some developed countries, many people keep domesticated rats as pets. These are of the species R. norvegicus, which originated in the grasslands of China and spread to Europe and eventually, in 1775, to the New World. Pet rats are Brown Rats descended from those bred for research, and are often called “fancy rats”, but are the same species as the common city “sewer” rat. Domesticated rats tend to be both more docile than their wild ancestors and more disease prone, presumably due to inbreeding.
The common species are opportunistic survivors and often live with and near humans, therefore they are known as commensals. They may cause substantial food losses, especially in developing countries. However, the widely distributed and problematic commensal species of rats are a minority in this diverse genus. Many species of rats are island endemics and some have become endangered due to habitat loss or competition with the Brown, Black or Polynesian rat.
Wild rats can carry many different “zoonotic” pathogens, such as e.g. Leptospira, Toxoplasma gondii and Campylobacter, and may transfer these across species, for example to humans. The Black Death is traditionally believed to have been caused by the micro-organism Yersinia pestis, carried by the Tropical Rat Flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) which preyed on Black Rat living in European cities during the epidemic outbreaks of the Middle Ages; these rats were used as transport hosts. Today, this cycle still exists in many countries of the world and plague outbreaks still occur every year. Beside transmitting zoonotic pathogens, rats are also linked to the spread of contagious animal pathogens that may result in livestock diseases such as Classical Swine Fever and Foot-and-mouth disease.
The normal lifespan of rats ranges from two to five years, and is typically three years.