Newswise — They say, "Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door." Biologists at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock hope it also works with gophers.
Dr. Robert S. Sikes, a professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology, and a team of graduate students set out to build a better gopher trap " one that keeps the pesky critters alive for researchers to study their behavior and communications.
Graduate students Susan DeVries, who did her undergraduate work at the University of Louisiana, and Kimberly King of Little Rock needed an ample supply of gophers to aid in their separate research projects in gopher behavior and communication.
"The problem is most people consider gophers annoying pests, and most traps kill them," Sikes said. "We wanted them alive. You can't very well study the behavior of a gopher if he's dead." Initial attempts at a live trap were thwarted by gopher behavior.
"They pushed dirt in front of prototypes to plug the opening when we dug into the burrows," the professor said. "That dirt blocked doors of other trap designs."
So Sikes, a behavioral and evolutionary ecologist, and a third student, Ph.D. student Tommy Finley of Malvern, set out to build a better gopher trap.
Gophers, small burrowing rodents that are efficient digging machines, create burrow systems that can cover hundreds to thousands of square feet. They increase soil fertility by mixing plant material and fecal waste into the soil, and their burrowing aerates the soil and speeds up the formation of new soil by bringing minerals to the surface.
But gardeners and groundskeepers everywhere identify with Bill Murray's hapless greens keeper in the classic movie Caddyshack who was constantly being outsmarted by one wily gopher. A poster from the movie hung in Sikes' lab while he and his researchers worked to outsmart the rascally rodents.
The solution was a highly efficient trap built with an inner layer of chicken wire that utilizes a drawstring action " like purse strings " that capture the animal without hurting him.
Sikes and Finley tested their prototype gopher traps on a pasture next door to Sikes' family farm in southwestern Arkansas.
"It's a field of dreams, in terms of gophers," Sikes said. Within 48 hours, they had over 20 gophers to study.
Now that the trap is perfected, Sikes said his students needing a "guinea pig" for a gopher observation can go out on the fringes of campus and have one corralled in no time.
"It's a simple design that takes into account gopher behaviors that stymied other attempts. This trap is the 'Hotel California' for gophers " 'they can check in anytime they like, but they can never leave'."
As for the students who prompted the trap innovation: DeVries' paper on gopher communication will be published soon. She earned her master's degree at UALR last spring and is now pursing a Ph.D at the University of Southern Mississippi. King, who is studying behavior in free-ranging individuals, was recruited for UALR's graduate school from Oklahoma State University.
Trap co-inventor Finley has landed a tenure-track position at Henderson State University. A first-generation college student who was a welder before going to college, Finley had never traveled extensively from home when he first enrolled at UALR. He received his Ph.D. last fall following trips across the United States and to China for his dissertation research on metabolic depression in giant pandas.