I hesitate to praise the groundhog. Most of the time, they are gardeners’ worst nightmare, who struggle to cope with their depredations and greed…. Recently, however, I came across a scientific study praising a close relative of the groundhog, as the first example of a non-human mammal farming!
In fact, there is a small rodent in Florida called the Southeastern pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis) that can dig a vast network of tunnels as big as a football field. By comparison, our beloved woodchuck rarely digs a tunnel longer than 23 ft (7 meters). So scientists wondered why such a vast network of tunnels?
Eating Up the Daisies!
Yes, this gopher feeds in part on the roots that invade its tunnels. But it has the brilliant habit of not devouring the entire plant: it leaves just enough for the roots to grow back. Thus, it can nibble on the same plant several times. It’s estimated that about 20% of its diet is made up of these roots crunched under the ground.
In addition, this Florida gopher doesn’t have a dung chamber, like marmots. It relieves itself everywhere in its tunnels. Thus fertilizing the soil around the plants that feed it.
Of course, the debate is on whether this animal’s practices can be considered real gardening. Opponents will say that it doesn’t weed or multiply its plants. They will denigrate the work of this little beast by comparing it to that of fungus-growing ants which really cultivate mushrooms, carry out phytosanitary treatments, multiply their crops…
This being said, some studies also underline the contribution of woodchucks to the benefit of biodiversity. Indeed, we note increases of about 7% of the biomass in the fields where marmots live. Also, being fonder of plants of the Fabaceae family (legumes), they make nitrogen available to other plants through their excretions.
I don’t think the groundhog will suddenly gain my sympathy, but it’s a great example of how all living things have a purpose and there’s a fascinating natural balance all around us. And far too often we leave ourselves out of that equation.
Having groundhog issues? Read this: Nix Groundhogs in the Garden.