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Burrowing Mammals

What They Are and A Few Interesting Facts

  • Burrowing mammals dig burrows and tunnels in rangeland that can be quite extensive. These creatures can be as large as a badger or as small as a shrew. They include ground squirrels, pocket gophers, prairie dogs, kangaroo rats, kangaroo mice, pocket mice, and many other mammals.
  • Burrowing mammals are very common on semi-arid and arid rangelands. Their underground pathways and dwellings provide protection from predators and weather extremes in open landscapes.
  • Some burrowing mammals, such as badgers, dig many burrows that are not maintained. Others, such as prairie dogs, build vast burrow and tunnel systems that can be occupied and maintained for hundreds of years.

Why They Are Important

  • Their digging mixes subsurface materials with surface soils, litter, and feces. This helps fertilize the soil and buries carbon, which benefits many plants and soil microorganisms.
  • Their burrows and tunnels allow water from high intensity storms to rapidly infiltrate into the soil instead of running off. Burrows carry oxygen deep into the soil, helping to aerate the soil around plant roots.
  • Some mammals, such as kangaroo rats, kangaroo mice, and pocket mice, bury seeds in caches that serve as a valuable seed source for plant establishment. The burying of organic matter with the seed provides a supply of nutrients for seedling survival.
  • Small mammals, including shrews and moles, consume and help control soil arthropod populations.
  • Their burrowing activities help transport mycorrhizal and other fungus spores.
  • They contribute to the faunal diversity of the landscape. Their burrows provide homes for burrowing owls, snakes, lizards, and other small mammals. In Montana, up to 163 different animal species live in prairie dog burrows.

Learn More!

Butler, David. 1995. Zoogeomorphology: Animals as geomorphic agents. Cambridge Univ. Press. New York.

Parmenter and VanDevender, Thomas R. 1995. Vertebrates in the desert grassland. pp. 194-223 in The Desert Grassland. McClaran, M.P. and T.R. VanDevender, eds. The University of Arizona Press. Tucson.

Steinberger, Y. and W.G. Whitford. 1983. The contribution of rodents to decomposition processes in a desert ecosystem. Journal of Arid Environments (6): 177-181.


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Townsend's ground squirrel


Burrowing owls



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