Consider the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). It’s the state reptile of Georgia, and its burrows were once common in the deep sands of the coastal plain of the southeastern U.S. Growing to a foot long and weighing 12 pounds or so, the hardy reptiles subsist on grasses, forbs and fruits in upland pine savannah and sandhills. Gopher tortoises are a keystone species, meaning many other species depend on them. In fact, hundreds of different animal species – insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and even birds – use tortoise burrows for shelter from fire or weather.
But what happens when their world changes around them? In the last century or so, humans have significantly altered the landscape. They removed fire, the element which maintained the grasslands and open woodlands. They planted thick monocultures, first of annual crops, then of dense stands of pines. They planted buildings, run fences, and laid pavement over land where tortoises and their grassland companions once traveled freely.
My experiences with tortoises have been largely in the “you just missed them” category. More than once, I’ve felt like I should be bearing my clients a telegram: “We regret to inform you…” Several absentee landowners have proudly told me about the tortoises on their place, but when we visited could only show me crumbled burrows veiled with cobwebs and old leaves. When I couldn’t fulfill my objective to educate a landowner on how to improve the habitat for their tortoises, I was left to tell them why the reptiles were no longer there. That clearcut pine forest, grown up in scrub? Those woods that haven’t been burned since Reagan was in office? Those holes in the pasture you kept filling in? Yeah, that’s why you have no gophers.
Tortoises are hardy enough to survive on sparse rations, and can live as long as humans. They’re also stubborn, and may cling to their burrow even when the habitat vanishes around them. I’ve seen an active tortoise burrow in the middle of a 20-year-old loblolly pine stand, with nothing but pine straw for a hundred yards in any direction.
Another man proudly showed me some burrows crowded together on the cut bank of a woods road; After looking around, I pointed out that all the surviving tortoises had left the surrounding 100 acres (now had grown thick and scrubby since the woods were logged) and were clinging to the last open land for a quarter mile in any direction. All of the burrows were large, indicating mature individuals. Unless the land is again managed for open native woodland, that remnant colony will pass away with the last of those elders.
I recently noticed a old male tortoise on the shoulder of a country road. It was just crossing the white line when I saw it, and was fortunate that the next two drivers veered to miss it. I carried it across the road and gave it a quick once-over. The growth rings on the venerable fellow’s carapace had worn smooth, but it bore some scratches suggesting the shell had been put to the test in the recent past. Looking around, I could see nothing but canopied woods around me – creek bottom hardwoods to one side, volunteer pines on the other. When the tortoise was young, there may have been native rangeland to spare, but this poor fellow had outlived its habitat. This steep, mowed shoulder may well have been its only feeding ground. This old campaigner was likely as old as I am, but negotiating that 2-lane is a hazard beyond any its ancestors faced. So long as drivers continue to miss it, and dogs and men refrain from trying to eat it, this living monument will continue to plod along, foraging where it can before returning to the shelter of a well-loved burrow. When its time comes, it will leave a bleached shell to mark the local loss of a creature that will likely never tread that patch of Georgia again.
For more information:
About the early successional habitat the gopher tortoise need.
Educational materials and landowner resources from the Gopher Tortoise Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of this amazing reptile.
A presentation on the gopher tortoise, including what to do if you find one.