brevardmuseum:

The Humble
Gopher Tortoise

It’s over
90 degrees outside and the air is heavy with unseen moisture, not entirely
ideal weather for a nature hike. Yet from my spot at the front desk, I can see
there’s one brave soul heading for the nearest trail entrance.

He is
seemingly unfazed by this oppressive heat, for his skin is dry and his steps do
not falter. There is a determined look in his beady black eyes, and his dull
brown shell shines brilliantly under the hot Florida sun.

He is the
resident gopher tortoise, a familiar face here at the museum.

He is an
active fellow, as he often crosses the parking lot several times a day,
traipsing slowly from one end of the property to the other, pausing now and
then to rest in the grass.

Perhaps he
makes his daily sojourn to search for food. Like most other species of
tortoise, gopher tortoises subsist on a diet of grass, flowers, legumes, and
fruit. The seeds of the plants he eats pass through his body undigested, and in
his droppings he distributes these seeds across his home range.

His
species used to roam all throughout the south, but their range has been reduced
to Florida and some parts of neighboring states. He and his kind inhabit dry,
sandy environments, such as pine flatwoods, scrub, coastal dunes, and forests
with open canopies. Sandy soil is a must for these animals, as that is where
they dig their burrows.

His
forearms are built for digging-broad and powerful, shovel-like in their form.
With languid, sweeping motions he constructs his burrow in the sand, tunneling
more than 15 feet. Though a gopher tortoise’s shell provides him with a sturdy
and portable form of protection, it is underground in his burrow where he takes
refuge, safe from the grasps of the heat and cold and undetected by the roaming
eyes of hungry predators.

In recent
years, conservationists have been raising concerns over the falling numbers of
gopher tortoises. The biggest threats to these animals include habitat loss and
poor land management. Humans continue to encroach on the native habitats of
these creatures, clearing forests and scrub for property development and
agricultural purposes. Additionally, concerns have been raised over the
frequent capture and sale of wild gopher tortoises, an illegal practice that
has had a devastating impact thus far. As a threatened species, gopher
tortoises possess special protections provided by the state of Florida, whereby
it is illegal to hunt, capture, possess, or sell these animals without a
permit.

Though
their slow speed and drab colors give these animals and unassuming nature,
gopher tortoises actually play a pivotal role in their environment, awarding
them the distinction of being a keystone species (a species that plays a
critical role in maintaining the health and stability of an ecosystem). The
spacious and well-protected burrows that gopher tortoises dig provide shelter
for over 300 species, including snakes, frogs, mice, moths, and beetles. A
thriving gopher tortoise population is indicative of a thriving ecosystem. But
when an established population of gopher tortoises starts to decline, whether
due to habitat loss or disease, all the hundreds of animals that depend on
their burrows will consequently be negatively impacted.

It can
thus be said that the quiet little gopher tortoise carries the weight of his
homeland on his back, for without him, his ecosystem would lose an essential
foundational support and would be at risk for collapse.

By now,
our resident gopher tortoise has reached the edge of the parking lot; one scaly
leg slowly rises from the asphalt and settles onto the grass, the other three
soon follow suit. He trudges across the last few meters separating him from the
forest and disappears into the undergrowth. Despite the weight he must carry
and the threats he may face, the humble gopher tortoise marches on.

by Torin Grier

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