Have you ever heard chittering in a tree, or come across small mounds of dirt in an open meadow? Chances are you’ve found evidence of a squirrel or gopher, but how do you know which rodent you are dealing with? There are many similarities between the two rodents that can make it difficult to tell them apart. Luckily, each group has unique characteristics which can be very helpful in identifying whether you have encountered a gopher or a squirrel!
Gophers, sometimes known as pocket gophers, belong to the rodent family Geomyidae, which also includes mice and kangaroo rats. Gophers are nocturnal (active at night) have a thick body and neck, short fur and small eyes.
Thirty-five species of gophers live in Northern and Central America, and the Northern pocket gopher (Thomomys talpoides) is the most commonly found gopher in Alberta.
Like most pocket gophers, Northern pocket gophers are burrowing rodents with fur lined cheek pockets for carrying food and nesting materials. Their lips close behind their large incisor teeth so that dirt does not enter their mouth when they are digging burrows with their teeth. This adaptation contributes to the extensive tunnelling activity of gophers. Their burrows can cover an area of 18 to 185 square meters and can be up to 2 meters deep! Gophers spend most of their time in this burrow system, but they can sometimes be seen at night feeding on vegetation near a burrow opening.
Squirrels are members of the family Sciuridae which includes chipmunks, marmots and prairie dogs. There are three main squirrel body types: Arboreal (in trees), Fossorial (burrowers) and Flying. Many people associate squirrels with large bushy tails, but these tails are only needed by tree squirrels to help them balance. All squirrels have slender bodies, large ears and are diurnal (active during the day), except flying squirrels which are strictly nocturnal. They are predominantly herbivorous-seeds and nuts make up the majority of their diet, however many will eat insects and even small vertebrates.
Here’s where things get a little tricky:
Two members of the family Sciuridae are more difficult to differentiate from gophers than other squirrel species: The Richardson’s Ground Squirrel (Urocitellus richardsonii) and the Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus). Both of these species are often mistaken for gophers! Like gophers, these squirrels burrow underground, which can be confusing as most people are familiar with arboreal squirrels.
Richardson’s ground squirrels are found across the prairies of North America, but are commonly known as gophers. They appear relatively uniform as they lack spots or stripes on their buffy grey to sandy brown coloured coats.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are technically squirrels however, most people refer to Prairie Dogs as gophers. Black-tailed prairie dogs are present in Southern Saskatchewan, at the northern tip of their range. They are also protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). Prairie dogs are larger than Richardson Ground Squirrels, and have a shorter tail with a distinctive black tip.
Sometimes it can be difficult to identify a burrowing rodent because they will quickly disappear into the ground before you can get a good look at their appearance. Fortunately, ground squirrels and gophers can also be identified by evidence they leave behind! Looking at a rodent’s burrow can help identify whether there is a gopher or a ground squirrel living inside. Gophers have crescent shaped holes that they plug at the top, creating a mound of dirt, while ground squirrels have open burrows that are about 5 inches in diameter.