What do black racers, armadillos, marsh rabbits, mice, and moths have in common? Well...they all utilize the burrows of gopher tortoises at some point in their lives.
Gopher tortoises are state and federally listed as threatened or endangered in their entire range made up of the far southeastern states. They dig tunnel-like burrows in which they spend most of their lives, but they share these burrows with other animals as well. Because of this they are considered keystone species in the habitats in which they occur. Over 350 species of mammals, reptiles and invertebrates are known to inhabit gopher tortoise burrows at some point in their life histories, and are known as commensal species.
This project seeks to learn what animals specifically utilize these burrows within the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in northeast Florida by using remote trail cameras positioned outside the burrows. The cameras record video footage when animals move near the burrow and can record their activities and behavior. This project will provide a greater understanding of not only gopher tortoise behavior, but the behavior and interactions with their commensal species as well. Why do gopher tortoises share their burrows? Do they ever interact with their burrow mates?
Why this matters
Gopher tortoises are a fixture of upland landscapes of the south and can be seen from the coastal dunes to the pine flatwoods. They require sandy soils in which to dig their burrows, which can be as long as 40 feet and go down up to 10 feet deep. They are long lived, up to and more than 60 years, and are the only land tortoise in the south. Their burrows can be seen and recognized by the "apron", a mound of unearthed sand in front of the burrow entrance. They use this area to sun themselves and warm up each day and even lay their eggs here. Gopher tortoises can have more than one burrow and some tortoises have been known to share their burrows with other tortoises. When they are active you can see the burrow entrance has been cleaned out and is free of debris, but they are sometimes abandoned or inactive, but are still important homes to visiting animals because the burrows can persist for years. This project observes both active and inactive adult sized burrows throughout the year.
With a greater understanding of what specific animals utilize burrows a more comprehensive management plan can be developed and carried out. Several other species of concern have been affected by the decline in gopher tortoises, including the eastern indigo snake, pine snakes, and the Florida mouse. Little information is known about these animals at the reserve, but historically they were known to occur here. By ensuring that gopher tortoises are protected, we are also protecting hundreds of other species that rely on the tortoise's burrows.
What your money can do
The money raised for this project will be used to purchase at least 12 new trail cameras, as well as two sets of SD cards, lithium batteries, and building materials to mount the cameras on. Any excess money will be used to purchase back-up cameras, security equipment, and additional SD cards and replacement batteries.
Every time the camera memory cards are downloaded the mysteries of the burrows become unleashed. You never know what interesting animal or behavior has been captured.
We may discover new burrow commensals for the reserve’s gopher tortoise burrows and we will most likely learn new and interesting behaviors of their burrow mates. Initial studies have already begun and have witnessed bobcats urinating and scent marking burrows, a coachwhip snake speeding in front of a sunning tortoise, and male tortoises fighting each other for mating rights.
I am a conservation biologist interested and fascinated by all animals. My projects include surveying native bees, the Anastasia Island beach mouse, bats, and gopher tortoises. When I first started researching and learning about gopher tortoises I became curious about all their burrow buddies and visitors. I wanted to figure out a way to survey the fauna utilizing their burrows without disturbing or destroying their burrows. Using trail cameras and setting them to take videos I can get a view into a world that is rarely seen. Consider me the “Peeping Tom” of gopher tortoise burrows!
I have a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and I am currently a biologist at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.
Checked the trail cameras a few days ago and got footage of a coachwhip snake sticking its' head out of an inactive gopher tortoise burrow! Wouldn't it be neat to put more cameras out on the Guana peninsula to see what kinds of critters live in those? What if I found an endangered Eastern Indigo snake?!?
Check out the story that was written about my work and this project!!
Thanks again for supporting this project, with one month to go I think we can make it if we help get the word out there!!
Just got interviewed by Maggie Fitzroy at The Florida Times Union, Shorelines paper!! Should have an article out maybe by next week. I'll keep you all posted and thanks again for all your support!!