Scientists release 150 gopher tortoises to stem decline of Georgia’s state reptile

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Scientists release 150 gopher tortoises to stem decline of Georgia’s state reptile

Lee Shearer
OnlineAthens
Athens Banner-Herald

Posted June 5, 2015 10:33 pm – Updated June 6, 2015  08:29 am

Getting ready just before the release of some 153 gopher tortoises in a wildlife area in east Georgia. The turtles aren't quite free yet, though; first they have to spend some time in an enclosure so they'll get used to their new home. (Linda Lee/Special)

Getting ready just before the release of some 153 gopher tortoises in a wildlife area in east Georgia. The turtles aren’t quite free yet, though; first they have to spend some time in an enclosure so they’ll get used to their new home. (Linda Lee/Special)

Wildlife biologists with the University of Georgia and the state Department of Natural Resources released more than 150 little gopher tortoises in an east Georgia wildlife refuge Friday, hoping to stem the steady decline of the knobby creature, Georgia’s state reptile.

Only about 80 adult gopher tortoises remain in the 7,800-acre Yuchi Wildlife Management Area near Waynesboro, but the area needs at least 250 adults for it to be sustainable on its own, according to Dan Quinn, a UGA graduate student working with Tracey Tuberville, a wildlife biologist and researcher at UGA’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

The tortoises declined because the land adjacent to the Plant Vogtle nuclear plant was degraded by previous use for timber production. But now, state wildlife scientists are working to restore the habitat to a more natural state that can support a larger population, said John Jensen, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame Wildlife Section.

About 4 inches long now, they’ll grow up to be adults up to a foot to a foot and a half long, he said.

Quinn has been raising the little tortoises since last August at the ecology lab just over the border in South Carolina, from turtle eggs laid by adults in Reed Bingham State Park near Adel and St. Catherines Island, both of which have healthy populations, and the Yuchi area.

Adult females lay around six eggs, so taking a few to make sure they don’t get eaten by predators won’t affect the numbers in those areas where there’s a healthy population, Jensen said.

When the little turtles are fully free in about a month, they’ll join another group of youngsters Quinn grew and released in Yuchi about a month ago.

The tortoises are in decline in Georgia and the other Southeastern states where they live, mainly because of habitat loss as humans take over more and more of the land where they live — typically sandy areas such as Georgia’s sand hills region.

“Sometimes it’s hard to realize what the cumulative effect is when we lose a population here, another one there over time,” said Tuberville, a professor in UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “Little pieces here and there, it all adds up and fragments populations.”

“There’s a lot less than there used to be and the habitat they need is definitely declining,” Jensen said.

The turtles have also been a source of food in the past, which may have also contributed to their decline, said Tuberville, co-author of the book “Turtles of the Southeast.”

The gopher tortoises live a long time — 40, 50, even 60 years — so a population can look like they’re doing OK even when they’re in decline and reproduction isn’t enough to replace adults who die, she said.

The tortoises’ continuing decline worries wildlife biologists not just because of the dwindling numbers of the gentle reptile. Because so many other animal species depend on the burrows the vegetation-eating turtles dig in the sand, the tortoise is considered a “keystone” species, one that’s key to a whole web of wildlife, said Jensen, who is also a co-author of a book that includes the gopher tortoise, titled “Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia.”

More than 300 other animal species are known to shelter in those burrows, including mice, possums, skunks, birds and the rare and endangered indigo snake, Tuberville said.

Gopher tortoises live in Georgia’s coastal plain and the sand hills — the closest thing Georgia has to a desert environment. The gopher tortoise’s closest relatives are two desert tortoise species in the western United States, Jensen said.

The scientists also hope to learn more about the gopher tortoise’s ways from the youngsters they’re releasing. Tiny radio transmitters will track them for a year, and later on, they’ll be monitored using small permanent markings researchers have notched in their shells.

The little tortoises will be released group from their enclosures around July 4 — America’s Independence Day.

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