We must learn to channel our inner pocket gopher

Biomimicry is a fascinating concept in a lot of ways. The basic idea is pretty straightforward – evolution is a process of trial and error that’s been doing on for billions of years, and there are certain physical or behavioral patterns that show up repeatedly, or hang around for eons, because they work. So, we study those things, figure out how and why they work so well, and then find ways to apply them to technology. It has been pretty popular for while now, and I’ve seen it applied to renewable energy, architecture, military tactics, medicine, and more.

This is not a new process for our species. If I had to guess, I’d say we were learning how to do things by watching other animals long before our ancestors were human. Watching and trying out things done by other organisms seems to be a basic part of the “monkey” operating system in general. Myths, legends, and fables from around the globe are filled with people learning important lessons from nature, and that’s one of those ancient traditions that I think is absolutely worth keeping.

This time, however, it’s a little different. There are lessons for us to consider for our society, but they’re not new lessons for us. In pocket gophers, we find an example of evolution finding a useful approach to agriculture that matches one we’ve discovered for ourselves before:

“It really depends on how ‘farming’ is defined,” says Putz. “If farming requires that crops be planted, then gophers don’t qualify. But this seems like a far too narrow definition for anyone with a more horticultural perspective in which crops are carefully managed — such as fruit trees in forests — but not necessarily planted. With this perspective, the origins of agriculture included Mesopotamian annual cereal and pulse crop cultivation as well as maize cultivation in the Americas, but many cultures around the world developed agriculture based on perennial crops, many of which they didn’t plant but did tend.”

I don’t think that this approach to subsistence is a viable way to generate food for all of humanity, but I do think that it would be a brilliant way for us to both add variety to our diets, and to repair the harm we’ve done to ourselves by trying to separate ourselves from “nature”. Because of the changes we’ve made to Earth’s biosphere, we desperately need to prioritize ecosystem management, if only out of self-preservation. I think that this approach is one we should strongly consider. That said, I think it is time to learn what the gophers have to teach us:

“Southeastern pocket gophers are the first non-human mammalian farmers,” says F. E. “Jack” Putz of the University of Florida, Gainesville. “Farming is known among species of ants, beetles, and termites, but not other mammals.”

Veronica Selden and Putz report that pocket gophers don’t just eat roots that happen to grow in the paths of new tunnels they excavate. Instead, they provide conditions that favor root growth, by spreading their own waste as fertilizer. As a result, the authors argue that — by promoting root growth in their tunnels and then harvesting or cropping those roots — southeastern pocket gophers have stumbled upon a food production system that qualifies as farming.


Selden and Putz suggest that root cropping may explain why gophers keep and defend such extensive tunnel systems. The tunnels are comparable to rows of crops. If indeed what they’re doing counts as farming, then the gophers are the first non-human mammal known to farm.

“Pocket gophers are great examples of ecosystem engineers that turn over soil thereby aerating it and bringing nutrients back to the surface,” says Putz. “They eat only roots, some of which they grow themselves, and seldom interfere with human activities.”

They note that further study may reveal whether gophers eat fungi and how seasonal variation in the energetic contributions of roots growing into tunnels relates to their activity cycles. It’s not clear yet how their underground activities affect vegetation at the surface.

“Whether or not [pocket gophers] qualify as farmers, root cultivation is worth further investigation,” the researchers write.

I hereby declare that they qualify as farmers. Glad I could clear that up.

The article also mentions that these roots make up anywhere from 20% to 60% of the gophers’ daily calories. That’s a pretty broad range, at least to my eyes, but it wouldn’t surprise me if studying creatures like this is pretty difficult, especially if you don’t want to harm them and their farms in the process. Regardless, I think this is really cool!

I also think it’s worth underlining the fact that they are not necessarily incompatible with human agriculture – just the way we do it right now. Youtube is full of videos about how to kill pocket gophers, but I could see them actually being extremely useful for the “edible ecosystem” approach.

I also, as a science fiction writer, am fascinated by the possibilities that could be uncovered by modeling ourselves more after the humble gopher. Specifically, I think we should live underground, and farm in tunnels.

Sort of.

Underground cities have been discussed as a way to adapt to climate change for a while now. I’ve dabbled in the concept a bit – I’ve got a stalled novel about a solar-powered steampunk society living under the vast, lethally hot desert of the American Midwest, a few centuries in the future. Maybe if I hit a future patreon goal I’ll patch some of it up and publish it here for fun (sign up at patreon.com/oceanoxia, featuring new content and rewards starting in August!). I think there are a lot of problems with underground living – especially at the scale of a modern city – of which we can see only those on the surface. Even so, as I keep saying, we’re facing the end of the world as we know it, and that means that we need to be open to modes of living that would not have been worth the effort in the past.

I also don’t think that we need to resort to living in tunnels and farming indoors or underground to take advantage of this. Farming from tunnels could also be a way of doing it safely in extreme heat, as well as irrigating crops without the evaporative water loss from spraying. Subsurface irrigation is a thing that’s been used for a while now (though less than it should be in these days of shrinking water supplies), but I think it’d be interesting to see it combined with things like hydroponics or aeroponics as a way to continue taking advantage of direct sunlight, without putting farmers at risk.

Also we should store things in our cheeks.

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  1. says

    In a less pessimistic mood I can think of the interesting ways cooling tech could be deployed in the future – and yeah, I think living at least partially underground will definitely be a part of it. As I was feeling bummed about the extinction of large animals, I started imagining giant cooling tents with silver or white exteriors that could be erected and taken down as needed, so they don’t get weather damaged tho they’re made of light materials. I was picturing that over zoos, but hey, if you build a series of them miles long in the serengeti, the beasties will figure it out. Of course the serengeti turning into sahara junior will be a bad spot for wildebeests anyway, but I do think we will see some inspiring and beautiful ideas come to life, if the assclown leaders of men will allow.

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