Out There: Cannibalistic gophers risk death for roadside meal

2010-04-04T00:15:00Z Out There: Cannibalistic gophers risk death for roadside mealANDREW McKEAN Out There The Billings Gazette
April 04, 2010 12:15 am  • 

Why did the gopher cross the road? To gobble the guts of its friends, neighbors and kin splattered on the other side.

If you haven’t driven a lonely two-lane lately, you haven’t swerved and dodged (to either hit or miss, depending on your disposition) legions of gophers. For every ground squirrel that’s missed by a radial tire, another one is flattened.

At this time of year, when gophers are frenetically foraging and breeding after spending the last several months in their subterranean dens, that means a lot of roadside carrion.

It’s not uncommon to see a gopher tending to its dead comrade, and I used to think this was a particular form of grieving, as if the gopher wanted to dispose of the grisly remains. But these squirrels aren’t delivering last rites to the corpses, they’re devouring them.

Their concern has more to do with calories than catharsis. Last week I watched a particularly bold gopher appraising my pickup’s rapid approach with the entrails of its fellow hanging out its whiskered mouth. I’m sorry to say this courageous cannibal joined his comrade in the pancake-flat afterlife.

Most of Eastern Montana is occupied by Richardson’s ground squirrels, better known as our common gopher. They range from the Rocky Mountain Front across the Hi-Line, and from Bozeman to Billings, and into the Dakotas, giving North Dakota its unofficial nickname “The Flickertail State.” Gophers curiously are absent from much of the lower Yellowstone River watershed.

The diet of gophers normally tends toward the vegetative, small grains and grasses. But they will eat insects and carrion, including that of their neighbors. It can be a fatal habit, since so many gophers are killed on roads, but the threat of death bearing down on them at 70 mph doesn’t seem to dissuade the ground squirrels from grabbing an easy meal.

It makes sense that gophers are so keen to dine on the remains of their fellows. That’s because so many other scavengers are waiting in the wings to clean up the asphalt, including raptors, coyotes and sea gulls.

And if I had the choice of disposing of the remains of my relative, or watching them devoured by a ravenous sea gull, well, the choices are not good ones.

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