It Turns Out That Southeastern Pocket Gophers Glow in the Dark, and Scientists Don't Know Why
Spending most of its life below ground has allowed the Southeastern pocket gopher to harbor a fascinating secret. Apparently, the rodent native to Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, glows in the dark.
"It's kind of an indescribable blend of purple and blue and pink," J.T. Pynne, the scientist who made the discovery, told WABE. "It's very, very psychedelic."
A recent Ph.D. graduate of University of Georgia's Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, Pynne published his illuminating findings in The American Midland Naturalist this month. This is the first time biofluorescence has been documented in pocket gophers.
Pynne said he was inspired to shine an ultraviolet flashlight on the gophers a few years ago, after learning of similar studies documenting biofluorescence in flying squirrels and opossums.
"A bunch of people, myself included, were curious about other animals," he said in a UGA news release. "We tested it on the flying squirrels we had, and sure enough, it worked. So, I said, 'Well, what else do we have?'"
Pynne, now a private lands wildlife biologist with the Georgia Wildlife Federation, was studying pocket gophers for his PhD at the time, so he looked to his own subjects.
"And it turned out, pocket gophers, flying squirrels, and opossums were the only animal specimens that fluoresced. And I'm thinking, of course my strange little animals do this," he said.
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Southeastern pocket gophers almost never go above ground. Pynne told WABE that these small rodents play a big ecological role in the forests where they live. Their tunnels aerate the soil and provide homes for other animals.
They're also famously fierce.
"They're pound for pound some of the most ferocious animals I've ever come across in my life," Pynne told WABE. "I've always described them as really angry russet potatoes. But now they're really angry russet potatoes that glow."
As for why they glow, well, that's still up for debate.
Pynne said the Southeastern pocket gopher's superpower might be diet related. It could also be a form of communication. It might even be completely arbitrary.
"It's possible that it doesn't mean anything," Allie Kohler, a grad student at Colorado State University and one of the people who discovered that flying squirrels glow under blacklights, told WABE. "It shows that there's so much that's still out there left to discover, and who knows what could be hiding right in front of us."