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Glowing gophers: Small mammals have several cool abilities

Glowing gophers: Small mammals have several cool abilities

Glowing gophers

Animals that dig underground are called fossorial. The word comes from the Latin word fossor, which means digger.

In Montana, two small animals that are fossorial are the northern and Idaho pocket gophers. They get their name from fur-lined cheeks. In these pockets they carry food, usually plants they have collected.

Pocket gophers have some other cool gifts for living mostly underground. One is they have really long claws for digging. Their lips can be closed behind their big front teeth so they can use their teeth to dig without getting dirt in their mouths.

Their hips are narrow and their skin is loose, making it easier for them to turn around in their burrows. When they can’t turn around, they use their sensitive tail and whiskers to help them back up.

Pocket gophers also glow orangish-pink in the dark when you shine an ultraviolet flashlight on them. Their glow is called bioluminescence. Pocket gophers, and many other animals, have a chemical in their skin or fur that takes sunlight and turns it into a different kind of light. Opossums and flying squirrels are two other animals that glow, in addition to some birds, salamanders and insects.

Scientists aren’t sure why some animals have this ability, but the possibilities include: for defense, to communicate and to hide.

Northern pocket gophers are found across Montana while Idaho pocket gophers are found only in the southwest corner of the state.

Knowing that many animals and insects glow in ultraviolet light is a good reason to buy a UV flashlight. Then ask an adult to go exploring with you and shine your lights on different animals and insects to see what glows in the dark. Happy hunting.

— Brett French,


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