Horned Gopher (Ceratogaulus)

ceratogaulus
The Horned Gopher, Ceratogaulus (Wikimedia Commons).

Name:

Horned Gopher; also known as Ceratogaulus (Greek for "horned marten"); pronounced seh-RAT-oh-GALL-us

Habitat:

Woodlands of North America

Historical Epoch:

Late Miocene (10-5 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About one foot long and a few pounds

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large head with small, beady eyes; paired horns on snout

 

About the Horned Gopher (Ceratogaulus)

One of the most improbable megafauna mammals of Miocene North America, the Horned Gopher (genus name Ceratogaulus) certainly lived up to its name: this foot-long, otherwise inoffensive gopher-like creature sported a pair of sharp horns on its snout, the only rodent ever known to have evolved such an elaborate head display.

To judge by its small eyes and mole-like, long-clawed front hands, Ceratogaulus evaded the predators of its North American habitat and avoided the noonday heat by burrowing into the ground--a trait shared by the prehistoric armadillo Peltephilus, the only other known horned, burrowing mammal in the fossil record. (The Horned Gopher also bears an uncanny resemblance to the mythical Jackalope, which, however, seems to have been made up out of whole cloth sometime in the 1930's.)

The big question, of course, is: why did the Horned Gopher evolve horns? An amazing amount of paperwork has been expended on this mystery, the most likely answer coming to us via the process of elimination. Since both male and female Horned Gophers possessed horns of roughly the same size, these horns clearly couldn't have been a sexually selected characteristic--that is, males didn't impress females during mating season with their long horns--and the structures were oriented in such a way that they would have been of practically no use in digging.

The only logical conclusion is that these horns were intended to intimidate predators; a hungry Amphicyon, for instance, might have thought twice about lunching on the bite-sized Ceratogaulus (and getting a mouthful of painful horn in the process) if a more easily swallowed creature happened to be cowering nearby.