- Nov 13, 2017
- Location (City and/or State)
- Cincinnati, OH
This 3-month old baby gopher tortoise is one of dozens of the animals that were hatched at special facilities at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. When they are bigger, they will released in the wild as part of an effort to build up populations of gopher tortoises and help keep them off the Endangered Species List. (Photo: Charles Seabrook)
Posted: 12:00 a.m. Friday, December 29, 2017
The gopher tortoise, Georgia’s official state reptile, is North America’s largest land turtle and the Southeast’s only native tortoise. It digs its deep burrows in the sandy soil of its natural habitat — open, grassy upland forests, which once covered huge swaths of the Southeast’s coastal plain.
More than 250 other species — including frogs, lizards, snakes, mice, skunks, foxes, beetles — also may use the burrows for shelter and nesting.
Thus, the gopher tortoise is called a keystone species because so many other animals rely on it.
The tortoise itself, however, is in serious decline. Habitat destruction from development, logging, agriculture and other problems has greatly reduced its populations. It is on the federal Endangered Species List in its western range (Mississippi, Louisiana, western Alabama) and is a candidate for federal listing in its eastern range, including Georgia.
Wildlife biologists hope to avoid the need for the more stringent protection in the eastern range by helping landowners adopt voluntary conservation methods. Some 80 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private or corporate ownership.
To learn about some of those methods, I recently visited the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab near Aiken, S.C. One method pioneered by SREL involves removing tortoises from areas where their habitat is threatened by development and then “translocating” them to protected preserves — and then helping them overcome their strong instinct to try to crawl back to their old homes.
SREL researchers also have begun retrieving tortoise eggs from burrows, hatching them in incubators, rearing the hatchlings in special pens until they are a certain size, and then releasing them into the wild — another effort to enhance the animals’ survival chances.