Hubbard Fellowship – When is a Gopher not a Gopher?

This post is written by Kim Tri, one of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Kim is an excellent artist, as well as an ecologist, writer, and land steward.  As you can see, her drawings of animals are exceptional.


13-lined ground squirrel.  Ink drawing by Kim Tri.


When it’s a streaked gopher!  That is the common name that I grew up with for the thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Ictidomys or Spermophilus tridecemlineatus).  Imagine my disappointment when I found out that actual gophers are 1) not closely related, and 2) look like this:


Plains pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius).  Ink drawing by Kim Tri.


Pocket gophers are one of the few animals that I would describe as “ugly.”  Note: I do not use this word to describe pugs, star-nosed moles, aye-ayes, vultures, or a number of animals termed by most people as “ugly.”

As far as I can tell, the misnomer of “streaked gopher” (with streaked inexplicably being pronounced with two syllables) is unique to my family, as I have yet to find anyone who has ever heard of it who is not related to me.  “Striped gopher,” however, is a more common name, especially back in Minnesota, or the Gopher State (the MN Dept. of Natural Resources refers to it as the “Minnesota Gopher” on their website).  It is partially responsible for this unfortunate mascot.  University of Minnesota students will freely admit that mascot of Goldy Gopher was designed by someone who did not actually know what gophers look like.

Both thirteen-lined ground squirrels and pocket gophers are rodents, but the relationship ends there.  I. tridecemlineatus belongs to the family Sciuridae, which includes your familiar tree squirrels and chipmunks, and your less familiar (depending on where you live) ground squirrels, prairie dogs, flying squirrels, and marmots.  Pocket gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, which includes pocket gophers, end of list.  Both animals dig burrows and spend time underground, but since pocket gophers eat mainly roots and tubers, they need rarely come up to the surface and have taken burrowing to the next level.  They have oversize front paws for digging and lips that close behind their massive incisors, so that they can excavate with their chompers without getting a mouthful of dirt.  Their eyes and ears are small and weak because sight and hearing are not very important underground.  Thirteen-lined ground-squirrels, on the other hand, are part of the group of spermophiles, or “seed-lovers,” (though they eat a lot of insects as well) and consequently spend much of their time foraging aboveground and are less specialized for burrowing.  They’ve kept the squirrel’s nimble forepaws as well as good eyesight and hearing for detecting predators and prey alike.

I’ve always been enamored of thirteen-lined ground squirrels.  I mean, look at that face.  Then look at the clever little paws, sleek body, and intricate design.  Growing up, I could watch them sometimes from the kitchen window, and can do the same here.  We share the yard with a family of them, and it delights me to see them.  They build little tunnels through the pile of grass clippings that have accumulated by the walkway and use them as cover while they forage in the backyard.  Their favorite pile seems to be right outside of my window, so I have had plenty of opportunity to watch the little ones playing and growing throughout the summer.  They never paid me much heed, so I just assumed that they couldn’t see me through the window screen.  After spending quite a while standing not very still within a few feet of a foraging ground squirrel, I have since concluded that they simply don’t care about people.  They know that they can be underground before I can even bend down to snatch them.

Disclaimer: I am not bashing pocket gophers.  Their adaptations for burrowing make them pretty cool, at least to me, as do their “pockets”—cheek pouches for carrying food which extend all the way onto their shoulders and can be turned inside out.  I just think they’re ugly.

But, you know, the more I look at them, the more I see some cute in them.  I mean, look at that face.

pocket gopher head


P.S. If you want to see how Minnesotans feel about real gophers rather than people in striped gopher costumes, look up Viola Gopher Days, which take place near my home town.  I personally have never been and can’t decide whether I find it grisly or folksy.

This entry was posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History and tagged , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

10 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship – When is a Gopher not a Gopher?

  1. Whuuuuuuuuuut?!?!? I LOVE pocket gophers!!! They are the coolest! How often do you get to see an animal that looks like it belongs in the Pleistocene?? shaggy fur, long claws, big ol’ teeth! Who would think that such a fearsome-looking beast is roaming around UNDER the prairie?! Aerating our soil, improving drainage, creating great habitat for small mammals, insects, reptiles (gopher mounds are important for thermoregulating species that appreciate that the soil warms faster than the plant-covered areas). PLUS, they have FUR-LINED POUCHES! Beyond crazy. Can you imagine??? Can’t have that dirt sticking to moist mucous membranes… Like the pocket mice, they don’t really need to drink water because their fur-line pouches help with their water efficiency.
    Anyway… your drawings are kickass as always and it’s great to see some of your art on here! I loved watching the clueless 13-lined ground squirrels scamper around the yard. How many have managed to get “trapped” in the cinder block step as you approach the mudroom? Doofuses!

  2. A ground squirrel or chipmunk for a mascot would be so much cooler but what fear could one ever hope to strike in opposing football teams if you were the chipmunks or ground squirrels?! ‘Tis unfortunate.

  3. Yes! Big fan of 13-lined ground squirrels, which were unbelievably common the Lake Michigan dunes I grew up in. But I had no idea what their real name was, as the local name (in SE Wisconsin) was ‘Louie’s’. No idea why. But we just called them Louie’s.

  4. I used to run a CSA 15 miles east of Rochester, MN. I know all about Viola’s gopher love. I had a young man help at the farm and one of the things he did was set gopher traps. He had 6 traps. I think he was getting $3 per pair of paws. Now I live in NE and have no gophers, but plenty of moles.

  5. Friggin see a bunch these here furry dudes when I’m running from Elgin to Viola. I won a pie eating contest at Gopher Count as a child which may have foreshadowed my future obesity but I’m fit now ladies. Good Job on the article dude.

  6. Neat article with great illustrations. Interested in contacting Kim for permission to use. Any chance you can put me in touch?

  7. I’m from Rocehester… Today I was hiking at Itasca State Park with my best friend when we saw one and I called it a “streaky gopher.” The best friend, who is from the cities, looked at me like I was nuts and asked what I was talking about. Interestingly, when I went to google it, I only had to enter “streaky” and Google suggested “streaky gopher,” right away.


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