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Pocket gophers serve as 'ecosystem engineers'

(Portland, Ore.) Love them or hate them, pocket gophers have an important effect on the soil and plants where they live. They serve as small "ecosystem engineers" generating major impacts on the physical environment.

Jim Reichman, director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at UC Santa Barbara, will present findings on North American pocket gophers, entitled "Bioturbation by subterranean mammalian herbivores and its impact on ecosystems," at the annual meeting of the Ecology Society of America in Portland, Ore., the first week in August. Eric Seabloom of NCEAS is a co-author.

Pocket gophers are named for their fur-lined pouches located on the outside of their mouths. They use the pouches to carry food, hence the name. The rodents vary in length from six to 13 inches. As with most burrowing mammals, pocket gophers have poor eyesight. However, they compensate for this with other, well-developed senses, such as large whiskers, which are sensitive to movement and help them in dark tunnels. They have powerful claws and teeth for digging. They are vegetarian, or herbivores, surviving mostly on roots.

"Gophers live below ground so people don't think much about them, but they change the landscape and the nutrient availability of the soil," said Seabloom. "They act like little rototillers, loosening and aerating the soil. They loosen the soil and the speed at which plants decompose, causing higher production of plants, and they may be important to the biodiversity of plants. They definitely have an important effect."

Reichman explained that gophers were part of the natural system historically, a major part of the natural habitat. "Gophers were part of the ecosystem before grazing and before people arrived," he said. He is researching the differential effect that gophers have on native plants versus invasive species. This research is contributing to efforts to restore native habitats.

In his presen
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Contact: Gail Gallessich
gail.g@ia.ucsb.edu
805-893-7220
University of California - Santa Barbara
2-Aug-2004


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