Thursday, December 26, 2013

Of Gophers and Salamanders

A few years ago, my friend and co-worker Merald and I took the Uplands section of the Florida Master Naturalist Program. For our final group project, we teamed up and did a little skit about Gophers and Gophers. I talked about Gopher Tortoises and Merald talked about Pocket Gophers, but we pretended that we each thought we were presenting about the same thing and chaos ensued, all because of the confusion caused by using common names. We stood side by side next to our posters and took turns talking about various aspects of the two kinds of gophers. At the beginning of the presentation we agreed on the basics--that they lived in burrows in the uplands--but as we got more specific, the confusion became more clear. When Merald said that gophers were mammals, I interrupted and corrected him, and when I said they layed eggs in the apron of their burrow, he got very worried looking and sputtered. It was all good fun. We were perhaps too good at our play fighting because later on some people in the class told us they were starting to feel bad for us bombing so badly on our presentation.

Merald's Poster About Pocket Gophers

My Poster about Gopher Tortoises

I think about the gophers and gophers a lot when I'm out hiking because I'm quite likely to see signs of one or the other of them in the Sandhills that are so common around Gainesville. Pocket gopher mounds are far more common than gopher tortoises but you can often see both together in the same area, which causes some confusion. In fact, there is so much confusion in the names in general that it really becomes quite silly. In researching for the project we learned that the word "Gopher" comes from the French "Gauphre" which means "honeycomb". In Europe, gopher tunnels reminded people of honeycombs and thus the name for the animal. Later, when European explorers came to N. America, they applied the term "Gopher" to burrowing animals in general. One report we read said that in some regions of the U.S., moles and voles are called Gophers. The term is also applied to at least one species of ground squirrel. The animal we know in Florida as the Pocket Gopher is the Southeastern Pocket Gopher and is one of 6 species of pocket gophers in the U.S. But the term is also applied in the Southeast to a burrowing tortoise, the Gopher Tortoise. And some people refer to either the mammal or the reptile as just "Gopher", so you have to be sure you know which one they mean--Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) or Southeastern Pocket Gopher (Geomys pinetis).
Pocket Gopher Mounds in the Sandhill

Gopher Tortoise Burrow in a different Sandhill Nearby

But to make things even more complicated, in some areas people also refer to Pocket Gophers as "Salamanders". A real salamander is an amphibian, so there is no way that people confused them with the furry mammals. Actually, the term came first from "Sandy Mounder" because of the way the Pocket Gophers push out mounds of sand when they tunnel. Later this term morphed into "Salamander" because it sounded similar to Sandy Mounder. I recently learned that the term "Gerrymander" comes from Salamanders, too. In 1812, the Massachusetts legislature redrew electoral districts to favor Governor Elbridge Gerry. The distorted districts were drawn in a shape that resembled a salamander. People termed it a "Gerrymander", blending the names of the district shape and the governor.

I've been lucky enough to see many gopher tortoises. I've even moved some out of the road to safety.   I've never actually seen a salamander in the wild. The closest I've come is a few years ago when I was with an adventurous kid who caught a newt. I've also never seen a pocket gopher, although I have seen photos from a friend, so I guess I believe they exist. I have seen the mounds they leave in every sandhill and cow pasture. For the first five or ten years that I lived in Florida, I thought those mounds were fire ant hills. They look a little similar. Both fire ants and pocket gophers are pests, but not the gopher tortoise. Gopher tortoises are endangered and protected. They are endangered because their habitat is disappearing, and because people like to hunt and eat them. They provide critical shelter in their burrows for hundreds of species of animals, some of whom just share the space, and others who use it to escape fire. Pocket gophers eat tree roots and crops and dig up fields and yards, causing headache for farmers, ranchers and homeowners. They are abundant and annoying even if I've never seen one because they are "crepuscular" (marvelous word!), meaning that they are active at dusk and dawn. But they do play an important role in the ecosystem. Pocket gophers aerate the soil, and they are food for predators, including endangered Pine Snakes, who live in the sandhill and prowl pocket gopher mounds for their preferred food.
Gopher Tortoise

Red Eft That Will Grow Up to Become a Newt
And finally, I get to the main reason I started this whole tale of gophers and gophers.  The other day I was hiking at Morningside Nature Center and saw the tail end of this Pine Snake sticking out of a Pocket Gopher Mound. It was so focused on hunting that I was able to get quite close. Eventually I spooked it and it slipped all the way inside the mound. Later I came back to see if it was still around and the snake was stretched out in the sun, basking. I hope it was busy digesting pocket gophers, because it looked a little skinny. But it was nice to get a chance to see such a beautiful reptile up close and at work. I didn't see a Pocket Gopher, I didn't see a Gopher Tortoise and I didn't see a Gopher Snake, although they do exist. But I did see a Pine Snake. At least it wasn't a Salamander Snake--that would be an Amphiuma, and I have seen those. But that's another story at another park. Too confusing.
Pine Snake Going in For Dinner

Detail of the Beautiful Scale Pattern

Pine Snake Stretched Out in the Sun

Beautiful Face Scales


  1. Great blog, Katherine! William Bartram, in his "Travels" account, mentions the little hills of sand. He himself seems to confuse Florida's two kinds of Gopher. I'm in Georgia just now--and my book is back home--otherwise I'd look up the actual reference. Great photos of your pine snake encounter, too. Nice work!

    1. Thank you! I have been meaning to read Bartram. In fact, I'm putting "Travels" next on my reading list. Thanks for the reminder!