Turtle tag: Researchers take close look at Marco’s gopher tortoise population

Brad Kolhoff drills a tag hole while Julie Ross steadies one of the gopher tortoises included in the research project. Kolhoff is with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Ross is a field technician for the City of Marco Island. The drilling is painless, and done through one of the tortoise's 'scutes,' which protrude out like large fingernails.

Photo by QUENTIN ROUX, Staff // Buy this photo

Brad Kolhoff drills a tag hole while Julie Ross steadies one of the gopher tortoises included in the research project. Kolhoff is with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Ross is a field technician for the City of Marco Island. The drilling is painless, and done through one of the tortoise's "scutes," which protrude out like large fingernails.

Brad Kolhoff drills a tag hole while Julie Ross steadies one of the gopher tortoises included in the research project. Kolhoff is with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Ross is a field technician for the City of Marco Island. The drilling is painless, and done through one of the tortoise's 'scutes,' which protrude out like large fingernails.

Photo by QUENTIN ROUX, Staff // Buy this photo

Brad Kolhoff drills a tag hole while Julie Ross steadies one of the gopher tortoises included in the research project. Kolhoff is with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Ross is a field technician for the City of Marco Island. The drilling is painless, and done through one of the tortoise's "scutes," which protrude out like large fingernails.

Biologist Paige Martin holds one of the bigger tortoises secured during the project. She says looking into the eyes of these ancient and gentle creatures is like looking back in time.

Photo by QUENTIN ROUX, Staff // Buy this photo

Biologist Paige Martin holds one of the bigger tortoises secured during the project. She says looking into the eyes of these ancient and gentle creatures is like looking back in time.

Keeping busy at the temporary field station on Marco Island's Dogwood Drive are Brad Kolhoff and Julie Ross, foreground, and Travis Knight and Paige Martin.

Photo by QUENTIN ROUX, Staff // Buy this photo

Keeping busy at the temporary field station on Marco Island's Dogwood Drive are Brad Kolhoff and Julie Ross, foreground, and Travis Knight and Paige Martin.

In the first major biological research project of its kind on Marco Island, gopher tortoises are getting more than just a once-over from a team of researchers.

They’re also getting make-overs as the researchers capture them, inscribe bright, indelible numbers on their carapaces, and also drill small holes in their scutes for tagging purposes.

Scutes, explains project volunteer Paige Martin, are parts of the shell that protrude and can be drilled without any pain or discomfort.

“They might react a little, but that’s more from the vibrations of the drill,” says Martin, who also helps collect the resultant shell shavings for later DNA analysis.

Project head is Julie Ross, who for the past couple of years has been monitoring Marco’s gopher tortoise population, but only by observation and keeping records.

Now, the project has become decidedly hands-on, and Ross hopes the outcome will yield plenty of revelations about an animal that has survived virtually unchanged for the past 30 million years.

Ross is a field technician for the City of Marco Island, and says initial observations suggest Marco may have larger gopher tortoises and a much denser population on average than in more northern parts of their geographic range of Georgia and northern Florida.

“We hope to find out why,” she says. “Is it the type of vegetation, amount of productivity, a lack of predators, warmer average year temperatures, or longer life spans?”

Data that interests the team include size and weight of the individual tortoises, age structure, sex ratios, clutch and egg sizes, and population densities.

“The data collected will be compared to previous studies in which body size and clutch size was compared to productivity,” Ross says.

The DNA collections, she added, might throw light on whether Marco has a genetically distinct population.

Assisting in the project are Paige Martin, Brad Kolhoff of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and FGCU student Travis Knight.

The project is under the supervision of Dr. Phillip Allman of FGCU, and his wife Karen.

Paige Martin says one of the little-known but fascinating aspects of the gentle gopher tortoises is that they share burrows with other creatures such as insects, snakes and gopher frogs.

“What I really like about the tortoises,” she says, “is that when you look in their eyes, it’s like looking back in time.”

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