If we say that there is another species besides the human that has tried agriculture, we will think of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and other apes. Perhaps we can even remember that there are some birds capable of using tools, or in the intelligence and dexterity of octopuses. However, the protagonist of this finding is a small North American rodent: the Southeastern pocket gopher, Geomys pinetis.
The key, in fertilization.
Pocket gophers are a type of rodent that can be found in North America, Central America, and Colombia. Gophers, also known as geomids, live in burrows and it is precisely in them that a group of researchers from the University of Florida found something curious, that these animals with underground habits did not seem to simply feed on the roots that appeared in their burrows.
The research, published in the journal Current Biology explains how these rodents tend and collect roots in the tunnels they live in, rather than digging tunnels for new roots. These animals receive an important part of their nutrients (between 20 and 60% according to the authors) from these roots, but the work of digging tunnels for their search is not profitable for them, it is better to wait for the roots to grow in the tunnels already existing before digging further.
These pocket gophers take care of their plantations, fertilizing the land with their own droppings, so that the roots of the pine forests they feed on grow from the walls of their homes like the trunks of these trees grow on the surface. In the words of Francis Putz, co-author of the work, “roots grow like stalactites and stalagmites. They cover the walls of their tunnels.”
This discovery has its origin in the sewer pipe system. Underground pipes often suffer from the growth of roots of pine trees and other species. The team wanted to find out how the gophers managed to keep root growth from affecting the complex networks of burrows they dig underground.
They found that the pocket gophers, far from suffering from the problem, added fuel to the fire, fertilizing and caring for the roots in order to feed on them.
The authors of the article explain that they are aware that the definition of agriculture they take is quite relaxed. The difference is in the sowing. While human agriculture can be divided into three phases: planting, tending and harvesting, that of gophers does not involve planting their plantations, but rather depends on the wild growth of the pine trees under whose shade they live.
Putz explains that, although for many it is the planting of the crop that constitutes agriculture, horticultural techniques, the care of crops that have not been planted by individuals is very relevant not only in animal societies, but also in human ones.
The truth is that under this definition, pocket gophers are not the only farmers that we could consider, although they are the only mammals (apart from humans, of course). Similar behaviors have been observed in beetles, termites and ants. Especially fascinating is the case of fungus-farming ants.
The importance of agriculture.
Since the human being began to develop agriculture more than 10,000 years ago (giving an approximate date for the development of agriculture is complicated), we have progressively transformed ourselves, going from being a kind of hunter-gatherer to a sedentary society with a level of development inconceivable for our ancestors.
One of the reasons why it is difficult to put a date on the beginning of civilization is precisely because of the gradual nature of this process. It is perfectly possible (probable even) that agriculture was not invented overnight and perhaps in its early stages it had more to do with adding plant care to harvesting the fruits.
Therefore, studying the behavior of some animals can give us clues about our own identity, about how we advance step by step until we become the complex interconnected societies that populate the Earth.
No animal was harmed.
The authors clarify that no gopher was damaged in their research, although some would be irritated by the irruption of scientists, they comment. Beyond opening the debate on what can be considered agriculture, the researchers hope that their work will serve to draw attention to this animal, harmless but sometimes considered a plague and others forgotten on the North American continent.
Image | Wikimedia Commons
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism