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Gopher Tortoises: My Endangered Fellow Floridians

Dawnbg

As an eighth-generation native born and raised in Florida, exploring my tropical home state and encountering my fellow Floridians is an ongoing adventure. During my 13 years I have traveled from our state capital, Tallahassee, to our nation's oldest settlement, St. Augustine. I have enjoyed swimming in the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast, in the Gulf of Mexico on the west coast, and snorkeling in the Keys in the southernmost part of our country. Throughout these travels, meeting and learning about the unique animals that are native to Florida is the part I enjoy the most. 

For our Labor Day weekend, my family and I traveled to Lake Wales, to the Circle F Dude Ranch. Lake Wales is located on the geographic landform known as the Central Ridge and is near Iron Mountain, which is the highest point in Florida, at a whopping 325 feet above sea level! After breakfast, we put on our jeans and boots and headed to the corral. There I met Bullet, a brown horse who was going to take me on a trail ride. We rode single file down the sandy trail towards the lake. As I was enjoying this relaxing ride, I began noticing mounds of sand with approximately 12-inch holes leading underground. I live in the land of the armadillo and burrowing rodents, but these holes looked different: semicircular and large, not small and round like rodent holes. I motioned to my dad to look because as we neared the water the mounds became less frequent. Our guide identified these mysterious holes as the homes of Gopherus polyphemus, better known as gopher tortoises. Instantly I knew that I wanted to investigate these holes and the unique animals that live inside them.

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Dawn examines a gopher tortoise hole


I learned that gopher tortoises live in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and they are federally listed as "threatened" in Louisiana. They belong to a group of land tortoises that were part of a savanna fauna that migrated into the southeastern United States millions of years ago. Gopher tortoises are thought to live 40 to 60 years (Puckett, p. 1). They are burrowing reptiles that live primarily in dry pinelands, which explains why they have shovel-like forelimbs, unlike the more common box turtle. They may also live in dry prairies, dunes, and can even live in man-made environments such as fields, pastures, and roadsides. They must have open, sunny areas for nesting, and plants for food (Puckett, p. 2).

This interesting information made me ask: "What kind of survival skills do these tortoises have?"; "Is this reptile important to the ecosystem of Florida?"; and most importantly, with all the growth and development I have seen in Florida, "Is the habitat gopher tortoises need to survive being destroyed?" I worried that without human intervention, these delicate animals may become extinct.

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A gopher tortoise mound.


To begin to find the answers to my questions, I visited Wekiva Springs State Park in Apopka, Florida, where gopher tortoises are known to live. A park biologist, Greg Walker, was very helpful in leading me to where these reptiles burrowed in the park. As a biologist, he flagged the mounds and informed the visitors not to disturb these areas. Mr. Walker taught me that in order to protect the tortoises, a special permit was required to interact with them in ways beyond observing them, and only graduate students were given these permits. This guidance helped me follow all the rules to protect them during my field studies

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Gopher tortoises put sticks in front of their burrows to deter predators.


At Wekiva Springs, I found eight mounds. I measured the length and width of the opening of each burrow. I also measured the distance between each hole. These mounds ranged from two feet to eight feet apart. The tortoise hole width ranged from seven inches to 17 inches. Each burrow had a few sticks around the hole, perhaps as camouflage to help protect against the tortoises' few natural predators, such as raccoons and dogs. Their eggs and hatchlings are destroyed by a variety of animals, such as indigo snakes, foxes, armadillos, skunks, and even fire ants! I learned that gopher tortoises often defend their burrows by turning sideways in front of the entrance (Gopher Tortoise FAQs, 2003). Near every opening I observed that there was a green, healthy saw palmetto. Later I read in some of my references that this plant and its berries are part of the diet of the gopher tortoise, along with broadleaf grass, low-lying fruits, and legumes. My measurements helped me appreciate how much area tortoises need to build their burrows and survive. While I was measuring, I peered down each hole to appreciate the depth, which I later learned can be as much as 40 feet. As I peered down one hole, my heart raced at the sight of the dark ridged shell of a gopher tortoise.

This rainy observation day had wet sand, with different types of animal tracks visible around the burrows. In the damp sand I could see "slides" where the gopher tortoises had gone from the higher mounds where their burrows were located to the grassy field nearby. I located rodent holes, ant beds, and deer tracks around the burrows. In my research, I discovered that gopher tortoise burrows provide shelter for more than 360 species of animals, including mice, snakes, lizards, armadillos, small rodents, and rabbits. Some of these animals hide in the burrows to escape from predators, fire, and poor weather conditions (Puckett, p. 3). This information answered one of my questions about how important gopher tortoises are to the Florida wildlife ecosystem. Gopher tortoises are truly friendly Florida natives! 

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Saw palmettos are part of the gopher tortoise diet.


Another observation I made was that the eight mounds were located within 10 to 30 feet of the road. I was concerned because most of my resources stated that many tortoises are killed by automobiles each year. I quickly contacted the Florida State Park Department to see if signs can be put up on the roadsides to warn cars that gopher tortoises may be crossing. Hopefully, this would start the slow process of getting additional protection put in place. Over the next few weeks, as I visited other sites like the Rock Springs Run State Reserve, I realized that these slow creatures, whose homes and preferred habitat are near man and our busy highways, are often in danger.

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A gopher tortoise carapace.


After my field observations, I wanted to learn more. I went to the Orlando Science Center to further my study about gopher tortoises. I was able to handle and examine shells from gopher tortoises available for study. The carapace, or upper surface of the shell, was smooth in the larger shell. Was it smoother from a lifetime of burrowing? A large ridge was located in the back of the carapace. Chris Shannon, the assistant animal technician, showed me how the scutes, or segments, of the carapace and plastron, or lower surface, all fit together. I realized these amazing shells cannot, however, protect the tortoises from dangers like a loss of habitat.

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Dawn measures a gopher tortoise mound.


I have learned that a leading cause of tortoise death is land development, because it forces tortoises to move from their homes. Tortoises that are moved often try to return to their homes and are killed by cars while crossing roads. To avoid gopher tortoise relocation, the state of Florida requires permits that are issued by the Division of Wildlife, Bureau of Wildlife Diversity Conservation (Folkerts, p. 3). Since loss of habitat is a major threat, could developers be fined if appropriate permits are not used for gopher tortoise relocation? Are developers even aware of the issue of gopher tortoise protection? To explore these questions, I contacted a prominent local developer, William Roll. He informed me that builders are aware of these laws. If responsible developers think they have a tortoise on their land, they do an environmental study and work with the state to relocate the tortoises safely to protected areas, or change their building plans. Since the biggest threat to gopher tortoises is land development and loss of habitat, one of my goals is to increase public awareness.

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Dawn examines a gopher tortoise carapace.


In my travels around Florida, I have seen rapid construction and population growth. While I welcome my human fellow Floridians, the impact of our actions on our animal neighbors such as the gopher tortoise must be considered. Protected land areas such as Wekiva Springs State Park may help offer homes to many gopher tortoises. It is important to raise public awareness by educating the public through groups like the Orlando Science Center and the Gopher Tortoise Council, a voluntary group of concerned scientists and citizens of which I am now a proud member. Cooperation from automobile drivers and developers will play a critical role in the gopher tortoises' ultimate survival.I hope to continue my quest for these reptiles by further observation and by increasing the public awareness of their habitat needs. I know that to maintain an ecosystem, we must protect our environment. In order for future generations to enjoy native animals like the gopher tortoise, we must keep them safe now. We have the technology to learn more and to share information if only we will all work together.

 

References

Books

Alderton, David. Turtles and Tortoises of the World. New York: Blandford Press, 1993.

Haehle, Robert G. Native Florida Plants. Houston: Gulf Publishing Company, 1999.

Ohr, Timothy. Florida's Fabulous Trail Guide. Tampa: World Publications, 2001.

 

Encyclopedia

"Florida." The New Book of Knowledge. 1980.

 

Journal Articles

Diemer, Joan E. "The Ecology & Management of the Gopher Tortoise in the Southern United States." Herpetologica  42.1 (1968): 125-133.

Folkerts, George W. "The Gopher Tortoise: A Species in Decline." Gopher Tortoise Council Brochure.

Puckett, Catherine. "Gopher Tortoise." University of Florida Cooperative Extension Services  (July 2001): 1-9.

 

Personal Interviews

Knox, William. Interview by Dawn Edwards. Gainesville, Florida, 9 October 2003.

Roll, William. Interview by Dawn Edwards. Winter Park, Florida, 30 November 2003.

Shannon, Chris. Interview by Dawn Edwards. Orlando, Florida, 30 November 2003.

Walker, Greg. Interview by Dawn Edwards. Apopka, Florida, 9 November 2003

 

Web Sites

Gopher Tortoise Council. Gopher Tortoise FAQ's. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 1 October 2003. www.gophertortoisecouncil.org/tortoiseFAQs.htm

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Permit Applications. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 10 November 2003. http://wld.fwc.state.fl.us/permits/permits.html

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