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 Species Spotlight

[Photo: The Nature Conservancy]
[Photo: The Nature Conservancy]

Plains Pocket Gopher
Geomys bursarius

Description: The Plains Pocket Gopher is a small to medium sized gopher of the family Geomyidae. This gopher is heavy-set, with light brown to black coloring. It has small eyes and ears, a short snout, and two long orange incisor teeth. The Plains Pocket Gopher has large fur-lined cheek pouches for carrying food and long claws on their front feet for digging. In general these gophers range from 14-36 cm long and weigh 6-11 ounces (170-305 g) with males larger than females.

Life History: The plains pocket gopher feeds on roots and underground stems of grasses and forbs. This gopher eats while it burrows and may graze on vegetation within its tunnel at night. Pocket gophers breed for 3-4 months, beginning in early spring. Males and females reach sexual maturity at 90 days and have one litter a year, or two in quick succession. The gestation period is 51 days. Young are helpless at birth and cared for until almost adult size, then ejected from the burrow. The plains pocket gopher is preyed on by other digging species, such as badgers and weasels, but it is most vulnerable at the surface where it is hunted by coyotes, skunks, cats, hawks, owls and snakes. Mortality may also be caused by hunting or poisoning by humans due to their affinity for alfalfa. These gophers live 1-2 years due to the relative protection of living in a burrow.

Habitat: The plains pocket gopher prefers open or sparsely wooded areas. These gophers live in tunnels consisting of one main tunnel hidden deep below the surface and many smaller, shallow, lateral tunnels. Because it spends its life burrowing, the gopher prefers friable sandy loam soils at least 10 cm deep. The dispersion of this species across a landscape is closely matched by its soil type preference.

Distribution: Geomys bursarius is found throughout the Great Plains, from the Missisippi River west to the Rocky Mountains and from Texas north to the US border with Canada.  This species is abundant throughout the South Central Semi-Arid Prairies ecoregion.

Status: These gophers are common throughout their range. They help to aerate soils, improving drainage and incorporating plant material. However, these rodents can be damaging to agricultural crops and lawns, especially if there is a high density of gophers in the area.


University of Michigan, Animal Diversity Web

Texas Tech University, Natural Science Research Laboratory

Mammals of Kansas

 South-Central Semi-Arid Prairies

South Central Semi-arid Prairies Level 3 Ecoregion Map [Figure: Houston Advanced Research Center]
South Central Semi-arid Prairies Level 3 Ecoregion Map [Figure: Houston Advanced Research Center]

The South-Central Semi-Arid Prairies ecoregion covers the eastern half of Colorado and New Mexico, nearly all of Oklahoma west of the Ozarks, and most of north and central Texas south to the Edwards Plateau. Because of the size of this ecoregion, there is considerable variation within its borders and it is easiest to describe this region in terms of six different sub-regions: Plains and Tablelands, Cross Timbers, Central Great Plains, Blackland Prairies, Edwards Plateau, and the Flint Hills.

Common wildlife found in this region are: jackrabbit, prairie vole, bobwhite, white-tailed deer, armadillo, mourning dove, magpie, Mediterranean gecko, and vulture.

Common industries are agriculture (arable crops and rangeland), hunting, and petrochemical exploration. This ecoregion has largely been impacted by conversion of prairie and woodlands to arable crops and rangeland; and more recently, for urban and industrial development.

Read more about the South Central Semi-arid Prairies by maximizing the "Ecological Subregions" box below.

 Ecological Subregions Maximize

 Invasive Spotlight

Oak wilt fungal mat on oak tree in Texas [Photo: Texas Forest Service]
Oak wilt fungal mat on oak tree in Texas [Photo: Texas Forest Service]

Oak Wilt
Ceratocystis fagacearum

Description: Oak wilt is a disease caused by the fungus Ceratocystis fagacearum, which affects all species of oak trees in the United States, with some species more susceptible than others. Oak wilt can be identified by fungal mats under the bark and diseased oak leaves. The fungal mats are identified by narrow cracks in the bark of dying trees (exposed by pulling away loose bark), and an associated smell of fermentation. The diseased leaves caused by oak wilt appear to have brown or yellowish discoloration associated with the veins of the leaves, referred to as "veinal necrosis."

Life History: The fungus invades the water-conducting system of oak trees. It can be transported through the roots of trees via continuous underground networks of oak roots. The fungus is also spread by insects which carry the fungus from infected trees to healthy tree by penetrating an existing wound on the healthy tree.

Habitat: Oak wilt can exist in any oak species; however, red oaks are the most susceptible and suffer high mortality from this disease. Spanish oak, Shumard oak, and blackjack oak are also more susceptible to Oak wilt than other groups of oaks. The oak wilt fungus can spread through groups of oak trees via root grafts; in sandy soils, this mechanism has been shown to spread the disease over long distances. Oak wilt can kill red oaks within a few weeks of infection. White oaks are less susceptible to mortality from this disease, but do act as a carrier of the fungus.

Distribution: Oak wilt was identified in the 1940s and since then has spread from Massachusetts to South Carolina in the east; and as far west as Minnesota down to Central Texas. 

Status: Oak wilt is one of the most aggressive and deadly tree diseases in the United States and has invaded forests of the Central Southwest, mostly in Northern Arkansas and Central Texas. Red oaks, including Spanish oak, Shumard oak and blackjack oak, are the most susceptible to this disease.  The oak wilt fungus can kill red oaks within a few weeks of infection. White oak are less susceptible to mortality, but do spread the disease. Oak wilt can spread from one species of oak to another in some cases.


Texas Forest Service

US Forest Service

 Candidate Spotlight

[Photo: Bureau of Land Management]
[Photo: Bureau of Land Management]

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Tympanuchus pallidicinctus

Description: The lesser prairie-chicken is a medium-sized bird, about the size of a domestic chicken, approximately 13 inches (33 cm) long and 1.5 pounds (0.68 kg). It has tan colored feathers overlaid with dark brown horizontal barring, and a short, rounded tail. Adult males have a yellowish-orange comb over their eye and a circular pink air sac that is displayed during courtship rituals.

Life History: The lesser prairie chicken is polygamous with males undergoing extensive mating displays to attract females. The hens nest in spring, producing 8-14 eggs which hatch in 24-26 days. The diet of the lesser prairie chicken consists of grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects in the spring and summer, and seeds, leaves, catkins, and grains from native and cultivated crops in the winter.

Habitat: In general, the lesser prairie chicken requires short to mid-grass prairies consisting of diverse native prairie grasses, forbs, and shrubs. During nesting and brooding, the lesser prairie chicken requires tall dense grassland cover; however, short open grasslands are preferred for breeding grounds (leks). In the South-Central Semi-arid Prairies ecoregion, the lesser prairie chicken prefers sand-sagebrush and shinnery oak/bluestem communities. The home range of the Lesser Prairie Chickens is large, with up to 1267 acres required for males and 577 acres for females.

Distribution: The range ofTympanuchus pallidicinctus extends from southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas, down through the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle and over to eastern New Mexico.

Status: There are approximately 50,000 breeding lesser prairie chickens remaining in the US. The lesser prairie chicken is listed as a species of greatest conservation need in Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico, but is still listed as a game bird in Texas and Kansas. It has been a candidate for listing to the Federal Threatened and Endangered Species List since 1997. Conversion of habitat to croplands and over-grazing of rangelands are the primary cause for the species decline.


Bureau of Land Management

Colorado Wildlife Profile

National Audubon Society

Natural Resources Conservation Service

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