There are probably a few things that come to mind when you think of farmers. To name a few: jumpsuits, straw hats, tanned forearms; Hay bales, tractors, seeds. All very rural. What about fur, whiskers, and big front teeth? Probably not.
But in a paper published Monday, researchers argue that maybe, just maybe, the southeastern pocket gopher, a small, burrowing rodent best known as a pest in many communities, could be viewed as a rudimentary breed of farmer. By digging long underground tunnels that encourage plant growth and allow for fairly easy root-nibbling, these gophers would be, as the paper put it, “the first agricultural non-human mammal.”
“Because they provide this optimal environment for growth and cultivation — that’s what we think makes them farmers,” said Veronica Selden, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida in May and led the research.
Francis E. Putz, a biologist at the University of Florida and co-author of the paper, said, “Agriculture is just another element in the natural history of gophers.”
Species throughout the animal kingdom participate in agricultural behavior. Some of the most advanced are mushroom-harvesting ants and bugs that weed, water, protect, and grow crops. But to answer that eternal question: are they farmers? – can be difficult.
“I would define farming simply as each person being in control of their land and being able to choose what they want to grow,” said Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, the chief coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, an organization that advocates for farmworker communities in Florida Florida insets rural Florida. “We make a distinction between farmers and farm workers,” he added. “Farmers can decide for themselves.”
Free will probably cannot be attributed to gophers. So no farmers in that sense.
“Farming is a pretty nebulous concept in terms of qualifications,” said Kate Downes, outreach director for New York FarmNet, an organization that consults with the state’s farmers. “With us there is no fixed rule: if you identify yourself as a farmer, we will work with you.”
Gophers don’t identify as pawns, so they don’t identify as pawns in that sense either.
When I was asked the question, the Florida Farm Bureau referred me to their guide to farm exemptions and transportation laws. “‘Agriculture’ means the science and art of producing plants and animals useful to man,” reads the document’s first page.
Are gophers humans? No? Not farmers.
Then how do gopher farmers become? dr Putz and Ms. Selden offer a two-part argument.
First, gopher gophers, which are solitary and spend most of their time underground, use tunneling to encourage plant and root growth. By digging, the rodents circulate air under the plants, increasing the oxygen levels in the soil. This activity helps the roots absorb more nutrients. The researchers also found that the gophers scatter their waste in their tunnels, which could help fertilize the soil.
Secondly, all the time that gophers spend underground is tiring. Digging a meter deep takes a thousand times as much energy as walking the same distance. dr Putz and Mrs. Selden wondered where all this energy came from.
By isolating a series of active tunnel systems, they found that the same digging activities that promoted plant growth allowed roots to grow directly into the open air of the humid tunnels. The gophers regularly ate 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 digging.
The researchers also suggest that some particularly dense root systems could provide the rest of the animals’ diet. “I think one of the reasons they have these enormously long tunnels is because there are some spots in these systems that provide a lot of food,” said Dr. plaster.
JT Pynne, a biologist at the Georgia Wildlife Federation who specializes in studying gophers in the Southeast, said of their tunneling, “I think if we relax the definition of agriculture, we can call it agriculture, but you have to.” apply across the entire spectrum of herbivores.”
dr Pynne notes that the animal “makes better ground” with its tunnels and that it “modifies its environment to improve its habitat for itself,” but that its behavior ends up not being intentional enough to be used for agriculture. “Based on all my experiences, I see that they haven’t progressed far enough,” said Dr. Pynne, who discovered that gophers glow under ultraviolet light.
The paper’s authors argue that “farmer” is a somewhat artificial term. Nobody seemed to want to choose this hill to die. “We just thought that the way they cultivate roots in the tunnels was enough to count them as farmers,” Ms Selden said.
More importantly, they learned another curious fact about how these animals fit into their ecosystem. “If you just type ‘pocket rats’ online, most of the entries are about how to kill them,” said Dr. plaster. “I think the first step in caring for nature is knowing something about it.”