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.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

More from the Gazette

FWP seeks comments on fee rules

15 hours agoLoading…

FWP group develops hunter-ethics campaign

January 24, 2015 11:45 amLoading…
Utah woman shreds the slopes 102 months in a row — and counting

Utah woman shreds the slopes 102 months in a row — and counting

January 24, 2015 6:00 amLoading…
Monster rainbow trout misses chance for Idaho record book

Monster rainbow trout misses chance for Idaho record book

January 23, 2015 4:45 pmLoading…
These hunting trophies live to walk away

These hunting trophies live to walk away

January 23, 2015 5:00 am Photos

Photos

Loading…
Helenan Jim Stein ties streamers for winter trout

Helenan Jim Stein ties streamers for winter trout

January 22, 2015 1:38 pmLoading…
Wyoming outdoors: Dog warms up to role as retriever

Wyoming outdoors: Dog warms up to role as retriever

January 22, 2015 12:00 amLoading…
Genetic data sheds new light on brucellosis in Montana

Genetic data sheds new light on brucellosis in Montana

January 22, 2015 12:00 am Photos

Photos

Loading…
Gear junkie: Cycling musician takes road tour to lightweight level

Gear junkie: Cycling musician takes road tour to lightweight level

January 22, 2015 12:00 am Photos

Photos

Loading…

Follow The Billings Gazette

Popular Stories

All the news from the outdoors scene, delivered to your email inbox daily.

Get weekly ads via e-mail

Featured Businesses