By Meaghan English, TrueSouth Properties Wildlife Specialist
Another critter that comes to mind when I think about a fierce outward appearance is the Gopher Tortoise. The Gopher Tortoise (the state reptile of Georgia) is one of the most unique reptiles, regardless of its intimidating size and stature. Not only are they experts at creating big, long burrows for shelter, they are also very reliable “keystone species” of the longleaf pine habitat.
The Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is a very large turtle that spends most of its days in the sandy soils of Georgia but can also be found in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. If you have ever visited Conecuh National Forest in Alabama, you have witnessed the many gopher tortoises that inhabit the longleaf pine stands there. The large shell of the gopher tortoise can reach up 15 inches long, but usually average 9-11 inches. The shell is a dark brown or gray and is pretty flat. Along with the size of the turtle, the large elephant like hind legs are another key characteristic of this species. The larger gopher tortoises can reach up to 15 pounds, while the average weight is about 9 pounds. Do not be fooled by the large size of this reptile, they may be slow but they are still very elusive.
The most unique characteristic about the tortoise is the fact that it is a keystone species. First of all, a keystone species is one that has a very large effect on its environment, regardless of its abundance. With that being said, the gopher tortoise directly benefits more than 360 species in a longleaf pine ecosystem! The tortoise creates burrows that can reach up to 33 feet long and are wide enough for the tortoise to turn itself around at any point. The tortoise uses this burrow to escape from heat, fire, or to hibernate in the winter. However, other species such as the Indigo Snake also utilize the burrows and the gopher tortoise is credited for helping the conservation movement for indigo snakes.
The gopher tortoise also replenishes the soil and helps reseed and replant fruit seeds and other nutrients that they defecate around their habitat. Unfortunately, the gopher tortoises are being displaced due to destruction of habitat. They are also facing hardships due to climate change and predation. The most common sites to find gopher tortoises now is on roadsides and in old fields where they are unable to create burrows and escape the elements or predators. In response to this problem, the Conecuh National Forest has been used as a demonstration forest where scientists and biologists work very hard to preserve the longleaf pine habitat and ensure that the Gopher Tortoise still has an area to thrive and flourish. The easiest way to survey tortoises is to walk lines and count burrows. Sometimes the burrows can temporarily house more than one tortoise! For more accurate counts, biologists will stick cameras down the burrows to get a more accurate number of tortoises.
The Gopher Tortoise is a very unique critter that is native to our area. Although sometimes underrated, this tortoise plays a huge role in our ecosystem and it is important to do all we can to help this reptile along. If you have not seen a gopher tortoise or its burrow, visit the Conecuh National Forest sometime and you will be amazed! We really do not give enough credit to this outstanding creature.
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