Photo of the Week – March 6, 2015

Ok, it’s not a world class photo from an artistic standpoint, but it tells a story.  I just wish I knew what the story was…

Hot cross buns?

Hot cross buns?  Little mounds of snow apparently pushed up by a small mammal tunneling beneath the snow.   Restored prairie at Deep Well Waterfowl Production Area, west of Aurora, Nebraska.  February 2015

I noticed these two small mounds of snow last month in a restored prairie west of town.  I was scurrying around with my camera as the sun dropped quickly toward the horizon, hoping to get some photos before the light disappeared.  The mounds were maybe 3 inches in diameter, and when I looked straight down at the left one, I could see a small tunnel leading straight down.  If I hadn’t been distracted by the fading light and my self-imposed urgency to use it photographically, I would have done the smart naturalist thing and dug around to see what the tunnels looked like.

My guess is that these were formed by a tunneling vole that needed to push some snow up and out of its tunnel, but I’m not sure I’ve seen this before.  There were no tracks above the snow that would have indicated a deer mouse or other similar creature.  Any other suggestions?

Photo of the Week – March 18, 2011

Plains pocket gophers are often underrated in terms of their impact on prairies.  Prairie dogs get all kinds of attention because they stand at the edge of their burrows and make cute little sounds (they also get negative attention because they compete with cattle for forage).  I would argue that pocket gophers have a similar degree of impact on their surroundings, and they’re in many more prairies than prairie dogs,but they get much less attention because they’re less visible.

The mounds from a pocket gopher's feeding tunnel are exposed after a spring prescribed fire. It'd difficult to tell whether the tunnel was made the previous fall or during the winter. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies - Nebraska.

The majority of pocket gopher tunnels are within a foot of the surface.  Gophers feed on the roots of plants as they tunnel – mainly tap roots of wildflowers.  Besides the impacts they have on plants from their feeding behavior, their mounds also have an impact on prairie plant communities.  There is contradictory evidence about whether or not the mound creation provides space for new plants (thus increasing plant diversity) or removes plants and allows strong perennials to expand into the disturbed soil of the mounds (thus decreasing plant diversity), but most studies – especially in mixed-grass prairies have found an increase in diversity.

Many thanks to The Nature Conservancy’s Jim Luchsinger for help interpreting the photo and providing background information on pocket gophers.