Are moles farmers? It’s a question you didn’t know needed an answer.

Are moles farmers?  It's a question you didn't know needed an answer.
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There are probably a few things that come to mind when you think of farmers. To mention a few: overalls, toquilla straw hats, tanned forearms; hay bails, tractors, seeds. All very friendly to the farmers. What about fur, whiskers, and big front teeth? Probably not.

but in a paper published Monday, the researchers argue that maybe, just maybe, the southeastern pocket gopher, a small burrowing rodent better known in many communities as a pest, could be considered a type of rudimentary farmer. By digging long underground tunnels that promote plant growth and allow them to nibble on roots fairly easily, these pocket gophers would be, as the article puts it, “the first non-human agricultural mammal.”

“Because they provide and cultivate this optimal environment for growth, that’s what we think makes them farmers,” said Veronica Selden, who got her bachelor’s degree in May from the University of Florida and led the research.

Francis E. Putz, a biologist at the University of Florida and co-author of the paper, said, “Agriculture is just another element of the pocket gopher’s natural history.”

Species throughout the animal kingdom engage in agricultural behavior. Some of the most advanced are mushroom picking. ants Y beetles that weeds, waters, protects and plants crops. But answering that eternal question – Are they farmers? – it can be hard.

“I would just define agriculture as anyone who has control over their land and can decide what they want to grow,” said Nezahualcóyotl Xiuhtecutli, general coordinator of the Florida Farm Workers Association, an organization that advocates on behalf of farmworker communities. in rural areas. Florida. “We make a distinction between farmers and farmworkers,” she added. “Farmers can make decisions for themselves.”

Free will is probably not attributed to pocket gophers. Therefore, not farmers in this regard.

“As far as qualifications go, being a farmer is a bit of a confusing term,” said Kate Downes, director of outreach for New York FarmNet, an organization that consults farmers in the state. “We don’t have a hard and fast rule: If you identify yourself as a farmer, we will work with you.”

Pocket gophers do not identify themselves as farmers, so they are not farmers in this sense either.

When the question was posed to me, the Florida Farm Bureau directed me to their guide on statutory exemptions and transportation laws for agriculture. “‘Agriculture’ means the science and art of producing plants and animals useful to humans,” reads the first page of the document.

Are pocket gophers human? Nope? Not farmers.

So what are pocket gopher farmers like? Dr. Putz and Mrs. Selden offer a two-part argument.

First, pocket gophers, which are solitary and spend most of their time underground, promote plant and root growth with their tunnels. By digging, rodents circulate air under the plants, increasing oxygen in the soil. This activity helps the roots absorb more nutrients. The researchers also found that pocket gophers scatter their waste throughout their tunnels, which could help fertilize the soil.

Second, all the time gophers spend underground is exhausting. Digging a meter deep consumes thousands of times more energy than walking the same distance. Dr. Putz and Mrs. Selden wondered where all that energy came from.

By isolating a series of active tunnel systems, they found that the same digging activities that promoted plant growth allowed roots to grow directly in the open air of the moist tunnels. The gophers regularly ate the ingrown roots, which could provide more than 20 percent of the animals’ daily caloric needs and make up for some of the energy lost in the burrowing process.

The researchers also suggest that some particularly dense root systems could provide sustenance for other animals. “I think one of the reasons they have these enormously long tunnels is that there are some places in these systems that produce a lot of food,” Dr. Putz said.

JT Pynne, a biologist with the Georgia Wildlife Federation who specializes in studying the pocket gophers of the southeast, said of his tunneling, “I think if we loosen the definition of agriculture, we can call it agriculture, but it will have to apply that across the spectrum of herbivores.”

Dr. Pynne points out that the animal makes “better soil” with its tunnels, and that it “designs its environment to improve its habitat,” but ultimately its behavior isn’t intentional enough to be a farm. “Based on all my experience, I don’t see them as advanced enough,” said Dr. Pynne, who discovered that chipmunks glow under ultraviolet light.

The authors of the article argue that “farmer” is a somewhat artificial concept. None seemed to want to choose that hill to die. “We were thinking that the way they grow roots in the tunnels is enough to count them as farmers,” he said. Selden said.

What was most important to them was learning another fun fact about how these animals fit into their ecosystem. “If you just type ‘pocket gophers’ online, most of the entries are about how to kill them,” he said. Putz said. “I think the first step to take care of nature is to know something about it.”

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