There have been many breakthroughs in human history. Things that changed how our species lived, survived, and interacted with each other. Arguably one of the biggest was when we learned to farm.
Around 10,000 years ago, the first human farmers began to care for crops in a particular area. Before that, they were hunters and gathers—they wandered from place to place, eating what they could find that was already growing, moving on when that supply ran out. Farming meant that they could begin living in one area all the time, which led to people building the first towns and cities.
It was not only an important breakthrough, but it was a rare one. Only a few other animal species have been found to be farming, and they are all insects: certain species of ants, beetles, and termites. But a new study claims to have found a new farmer: pocket gophers!
According to research out of the University of Florida, these animals care for and fertilize the roots of longleaf pine trees. This would make them the first known non-human mammal who practices farming!
Before we begin predicting a future gopher metropolis, let's take a look at the claim.
Pocket gophers live underground in groups in a series of connected tunnels that they dig. The networks can each be hundreds of metres long. They are also 'invaded' by the roots of a tree—the longleaf pine. This works out great for the gophers because these roots are their favourite food!
The gophers then fertilize these roots with their own waste. That's right, their poop and pee! Animal waste is well known as a fertilizer for all kinds of crops—farmers add these things to crops all the time because they add essential nutrients to the soil. The gophers go even further in assisting the roots by guarding and maintaining the tunnels where they grow.
"They're providing this perfect environment for roots to grow and fertilizing them with their waste," said zoologist Veronica Selden of the University of Florida, who is one of the leaders of this study, in the science magazine Eureka.
In short, the animals are caring for and feeding their crop so that they can later have better meals themselves. Like how human farmers do.
Is this really farming?
Here is the big question, though. Is this really farming?
That depends on your definition of farming. For some, farming must include collecting seeds and then planting a crop.
“Planting the crop, for some people, is what constitutes agriculture,” said U of Florida professor Jack Putz, also in Eureka. But he noted that some human cultures practice a type of farming where they tend to crops that they don't plant themselves. “I think the whole issue [of what is farming] is intellectually exciting because it’s not really settled."
What Putz is saying is that the pocket gophers behave similarly to humans who care for fruit trees in a forest that were already growing. Though they don't plant the trees, they care for them and help to keep them alive so that they can enjoy their fruit.
Are the gophers doing the same thing with the longleaf pine roots? Researchers like Selden and Putz argue that the evidence says that they are. We certainly love the idea of farming gophers, too!