How Do Gophers Breathe Underground? (Answered!)

The gopher is a small rodent, notorious to backyard owners, that spends a substantial amount of its life underground.

It is most often found in the United States and parts of the southern United States. A gopher is a burrowing rodent that has developed long, sharp teeth and claws for digging tunnels underground in search of food and shelter.

Gophers, like other mammals, have lungs that they use to breathe and extract oxygen from the air. Being underground, they make sure to have openings or are close enough to the surface that enough air can enter for them to breathe. They protect themselves from flooding by having specialized drainage shafts as part of their tunnels.

The gopher burrow system is a network of tunnels in the ground, which is similar to a mole’s system. Their tunnel systems are quite sophisticated in the sense that they contain different compartments such as those for food storage, the nest, waste and water drainage!

These systems can be extensive, covering up to 2500 square feet, and are usually found near areas where food resources are plentiful. Gophers prefer open areas because there is more area for foraging and predators are easier to spot.

Gophers use their long claws as well as their teeth for digging their tunnels!

Gophers build their tunnels by throwing soil backwards with their claws and teeth, creating mounds on the surface that point in the direction of the tunnel below.

The main runway is typically parallel to the ground surface and 6-18 inches below, while nesting and food storage areas can be located as deep as 6 feet underground.

To protect themselves from predators, gophers create plugged holes that seal off entrances to their burrows and feed close to above-ground sources of food.

Because they dig these tunnels underground to find food, and they often build their tunnels and mounds in open areas, such as fields, pastures, and backyards, most people consider gophers a nuisance as they may ruin a yard with their tunnels and eat peoples vegetables, tree roots and even smaller pets!

Gophers Eating!
Gophers Eating!

Do gophers need to come up for air?

Gophers can stay in a tunnel for several days without coming up for air as a gopher tunnel is constructed to supply the gopher with a continuous supply of air from above.

It is important to remember that gophers’ bodies are small and fairly inactive underground, so they do not need a lot of oxygen to survive!

 When gophers are underground, they do not need to come up for air, although they do need fresh water and food. Whereas gophers can find food underneath the ground, they do usually need to come up to find enough food and water if it has not rained for a while.

Gophers do prefer the fresh air above ground, but they have plenty of air for them to survive in their tunnels!

Gophers use tunnels as their home. Gophers usually spend 18 to 21 hours a day in their tunnel system – especially in winter, but they are not actually hibernating!

Gophers mostly come out of their tunnels at night to eat, to look for a mate, and sometimes even to bathe!

Gophers also don’t like to poop and pee in tunnels although they have special compartments for that. So, they will often come out every night to poop and pee, but they do not have to.

How do gophers breathe?

There is nothing special about the way gophers breathe underground – they breathe the same way as they breathe above ground.

They have a respiratory system that is similar to that of humans and other mammals. Like a human, the gopher lungs are composed of two main sections.

The first section is the trachea. This is the respiratory tube that takes the air into the lungs. The trachea is connected to the oesophagus that ends out in the mouth and nose of the gopher.

The esophagus is the tube that takes food and liquid into the stomach.

The other section that is part of the lungs is the bronchi. The bronchi are the part of the lungs that contain the actual air sacs. These contain the capillary blood vessels that are responsible for oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange.

The trachea functions as the tube that carries air to the bronchi. The trachea is the tube that carries air into the lungs and out of the lungs.

Why do gophers stay underground?

Like other rodents. Gophers dig tunnels to find food and to build tunnels as their home. Gophers do so to keep their food away from predators and to keep themselves away from predators.

A gopher tunnel is like an underground home where they feel safe and have everything they need.

Hand Keeping gopher away
Gophers stay underground mainly to avoid contact with humans and other threats!

But gophers will need to come up for food and water occasionally, so they only stay underground if they feel threatened.

For example, they might hear loud noises or smell the scent of a predator, which will discourage them from venturing outside for a while! As fairly shy animals, they will rather stay one day extra than risk being eaten!

Do gophers sleep underground?

Yes, gophers always sleep underground. This is one of the main purposes of their burrows!

Although gophers are active during the day and night, they do sleep in their tunnel system. Remember that the gopher’s tunnels system is its home and they need to sleep just like you and me!

Their tunnel system provides them protection from the cold, wind, snow, and predators! And especially in the winter, they sleep a lot.

In the spring and summer, where they are most active, they sleep less and mostly during the day to avoid the intense heat and lurking predators.

How to deter gophers from digging in your yard?

There are several methods for keeping gophers away from your yard and preventing them from eating your flowers and chewing your vegetables!

Here is a short list of ideas but I also wrote a Full list in another more elaborate post.

1. Ultrasonic Sound Emitters

My absolute favorite invention to keep pests away from my backyard are these cool solar-powered ultrasonic sound emitters that you can buy right off Amazon!

In my experience, they really work, and the solar panels on top save you the time and money of changing batteries all the time.  

Groundhogs and gophers, as well as other animals that may invade your garden, tend to have very good hearing.

This means that loud or consistent noises will scare them away or at least shorten their visits significantly!

My favorite ultrasonic emitters. Click to read more at Amazon.

2. Fencing

Fencing is the best way to keep gophers away from vegetables. Gopher-proof fencing is typically made out of poly wire, plastic mesh, or heavy-gauge wire netting.

A gopher fence to protect your plants!

You can build a simple fence to surround an entire garden or yard, or you can create individual small enclosures for each vegetable plant in the garden.

3. Gopher Traps

Use gopher traps to catch and kill gophers on the ground before they can eat your vegetables. There are several types of simple traps that you can use, but most work best if you set them after the gophers have already started chewing on your plants. I prefer those that catch them alive, so you can drive them far away and set them free.

4. Motion-activated sprinklers

Like most animals, gophers hate surprises, and they will run away if suddenly sprayed with water. I like this solution because it is humane, simple, effective, and does not require much time to set up and there are many models to choose from.

My favorite sprinkler option here is the Havahart 5277.

For more inspiration on how to keep gophers out of your yard, see my latest post for a full and updated list of the most effective means of keeping gophers and groundhogs out of your yard.

Conclusion

Gophers build networks of tunnels underground as their home, which they enter and exit to forage for food.

Their bodies are small and require little oxygen to survive, so they can stay in a tunnel for several days without coming up for air.

These tunnel systems are equipped with compartments for different purposes, including storage, the nest, waste and drainage. Gophers typically remain underground except to eat or relieve themselves.