Rookery Bay: Gopher tortoise a ‘keystone’ species

The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is an expert excavator. Its scaly, stumpy legs and sharp claws are the perfect tools for digging its underground home called a burrow.

Tortoises often have multiple burrows that average 15 feet in length and sometimes go as deep as six feet. Tunnels lead to larger chambers where the air temperature and humidity stays relatively constant, providing a safe refuge from the elements and fire.

Gopher tortoises can only dig their burrows in dry sandy soils with good drainage, and these areas are naturally prone to periodic wildfire. Without fire, some of their favorite food plants, such as native grasses, prickly pear cactus, and saw palmetto berries, can become shaded out as larger trees grow overhead.

Gopher tortoise burrows are especially valuable to other animals that seek refuge underground during fire events and weather extremes. Owls, raccoons, opossums, mice, frogs and snakes, some of which are protected species, can be found using the burrows from time to time. For this reason the gopher tortoise is considered to be a “keystone” species.

The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve contains some of the largest expanses of shrinking gopher tortoise habitat called coastal scrub. Resource managers are identifying and monitoring several tortoise populations on the mainland and on barrier islands. GIS (Geographic Information System) technology is used to document burrow locations and guide management efforts such as invasive exotic plant removal and prescribed fires in the reserve.

The gopher tortoise is listed in Florida as a threatened species, meaning possession, harassment or relocation of these animals is prohibited. It is also illegal to destroy eggs or collapse burrows on private property without a permit. The species is currently under consideration for federal listing upgrade to endangered.

Threats to gopher tortoises include poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation, road mortality, disease and fire suppression. Found from Louisiana to South Carolina, gopher tortoises are the only tortoise species native to Florida.

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