What’s in a Name? The Confusing Case of the Gopher

Gophers are a common sight on the prairies of North America. Well, maybe not gophers per se; most of the critters that plains dwellers call gophers are technically ground squirrels. During my formative years in Montana, for instance, the quarry during our ostensible gopher hunting outings were Richardson’s ground squirrels. This conflation—or perhaps confusion—has deep roots. In The Discontented Gopher, L. Frank Baum’s 1905 fable inspired by his time living in Aberdeen, South Dakota, the title character is actually a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Laura Ingalls Wilder, meanwhile, described the same species as “little reddish brown and black striped gophers” in the Dakota section of her 1930 autobiography Pioneer Girl (p. 231).

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An artist’s rendering of the seldom-seen pocket gopher from 1892. New York Public Library

So what, if not ground squirrels, are gophers? Technically, only pocket gophers—thirty-five distinctive species of which live throughout North and Central America—fit the bill. Some linguists posit that the term gopher stems from the French word gaufre, meaning honeycomb or waffle, perhaps a reference to their intricate burrows. While scientists did not name the species until 1821, Meriwether Lewis and William A. Clark observed the distinctive mounds and tunnels of the northern pocket gopher while traveling through present-day North Dakota in 1805. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of her family’s stint in Minnesota during the mid-1870s detailed the plains pocket gopher’s penchant for devouring crops. She noted that the animal carried away food “in the pockets in its cheeks” (Pioneer Girl, p. 76). Indeed, the pocket gopher’s expansive, fur-lined cheeks are its most distinct physical feature, hence the “pocket.”

While Minnesota had already been dubbed “the gopher state” by the time the Ingallses arrived, its nickname references neither the animal’s abundance nor its proclivity for crop destruction, but rather an 1857 political cartoon. The cartoonist derisively depicted members of the state legislature who had supported a hefty bond to aid railroad development as gophers pulling a train. Tellingly, the varmints in that drawing—and early renditions of Goldy the Gopher, the University of Minnesota’s mascot—more closely resembled thirteen-lined ground squirrels.

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The popularity of this 1857 cartoon by R. O. Sweeny led Minnesota to be known as the Gopher State. Minnesota Historical Society

While referring to ground squirrels as gophers is nothing new, there are important biological distinctions to consider. Pocket gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, while ground squirrels—a category which includes chipmunks, prairie dogs, and marmots, to name just a few—belong to the Scuridae or squirrel family. By most measures, ground squirrels are more charismatic than pocket gophers. Pocket gophers rarely appear above ground and use their long teeth and front claws—certainly not the most attractive features—to burrow. Ground squirrels, in contrast, rely on their powerful hind legs. Lastly, pocket gophers are active year-round, whereas most ground squirrels hibernate during the winter.

Despite the consternation they cause farmers, gardeners, and, as in the classic film Caddyshack, golf course groundskeepers, these burrowing rodents—whatever you choose to call them—play an important ecological role. Their digging aerates and enriches the prairie soil and stimulates the growth of native flora. Predators also depend on them as a food source. For instance, the ongoing recovery of the once nearly extinct black-footed ferret owes a great deal to parallel efforts to protect prairie dog towns. While ground squirrels and gophers continue to be regarded as pests, they deserve a place in any telling of the history of the Northern Great Plains, and they will surely play a role in its future.

Cody Ewert