If you build an archway out of stones, the shape and placement of the rocks will defy gravity and keep the stones suspended overhead. The keystone – the one in the center at the top – is especially important. Without it, the structure will collapse.
A seldom-seen animal parallels this architectural rule. Every time the Southeastern United States loses a certain land turtle, 350 to 400 members of the animal kingdom may be negatively affected. That is because they seek refuge or live in the burrows that this keystone species builds.
Meet the gopher tortoise “Gopherus polyphemus.” This medium-sized turtle with a gray or amber to dark brown shell is as old as the sandhills it loves. In fact, it is one of the oldest species on Earth, dating back to the Pleistocene Epoch – the Ice Age. Despite surviving the perils of geological time, during just the past three decades, the rate of decline for the species exceeded 30 percent, so in 2007 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) listed the gopher tortoise as threatened. The FWC also created a plan to protect the tortoise and its habitat in Florida’s 67 counties.
“To me, the gopher tortoise is such an innocent creature,” said Deborah Burr, the FWC biologist-administrator over conservation planning for the reptile. “All it does is burrow in the ground to live and come out to forage on grass and leaves.”
Being a harvested species until the FWC prohibited that in 1988 didn’t help the animal, nor did the destruction of its burrows because of plowing, bulldozing or paving. Gopher tortoises live in high and dry places people want to use, such as sparsely treed longleaf pine and oak sand hills, pastures, prairies, roadsides, scrub, and coastal grasslands and dunes.
The FWC, together with the people who want to use such land and other interested parties, came up with a management plan to encourage landowners to conserve the tortoise while still allowing people to use their land.
“If construction or development will impact gopher tortoises or their burrows, people have to get a permit to move the reptiles,” Burr said.
Yes, that costs money. However, those who want to set aside an area to take in relocated tortoises have the potential to make money. While the recipients also need a permit to ensure they meet the turtle’s needs, the private financial incentive is $800 to $1,200 a tortoise. The FWC requires such recipients to prescribe cyclical burnings to maintain an open canopy and to conduct other land management activities that benefit the tortoise.
Burr noted that because so many species depend on the gopher tortoise, the FWC prohibits moving one more than 100 miles from its home. “We want to keep them distributed the way we found them.”
Even though it is not particularly social with other tortoises, the gopher tortoise doesn’t mind sharing with other animals the one-entrance burrow it digs with its strong, clawed legs. The tunnel is just big enough for the tortoise to turn around inside. Into the burrow crawl diamondback rattlesnakes; long and beautiful, but harmless, eastern indigo snakes (federally listed as endangered); burrowing owls, rabbits, foxes, skunks, armadillos; and hundreds of insects and spiders. Critters, such as the gopher frog, gopher cave cricket and Florida mouse, are “obligates” of the gopher tortoise: They are rarely found anywhere except in the burrows.
These creatures are not capable of digging this shelter.
The cold-blooded tortoise digs to escape the hot sun, cold weather and predators. The sand it pushes out of the half-moon opening is the apron. That is where it lays its eggs, as does the indigo snake. The slow-to-mature tortoise doesn’t lay its first clutch of eggs resembling pingpong balls until it is 10 to 15 years old. Adults grow to be about a foot long, weigh up to 30 pounds and live 40 to 60 years in the wild.
When foraging, the tortoise uses its beak to chomp on grasses, nettles and poison ivy, and tender, low-tothe ground plants. It usually gets the moisture it needs from plants.
While it is at it, the gopher tortoise “plants” grass seeds contained in its droppings.
No wonder some ancient civilizations chose the tortoise to depict creation, carrying the world or the heavens on its back. It is the Atlas of the uplands.
Make a Donation
The Gopher Tortoise Habitat Fund furthers the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) management plan to protect the threatened gopher tortoise. Funds will help obtain gopher tortoise habitat and assist with the cost of land-management activities needed to maintain suitable living and foraging conditions. Please send your donations to:
Wildlife Foundation of Florida P.O. Box 11010 Tallahassee, FL 32302
Make sure to put “Gopher Tortoise Habitat Fund” on the memo line of the check.
Or you can donate online below:
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All donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law.