Slow and steady: Tortoises on the move
When the weather heats up for spring, it puts a series of things in motion. The most noticeable, of course, is the snowbirds starting to make their way back up north.
But closer to the ground, and at a much slower pace, there is another migration of sorts under way — gopher tortoises are on the move.
“As the weather gets warmer, every reptile in the state gets out and about. That’s what they do. They’re cold-blooded, so they all move,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) spokesman Gary Morse said.
A basic need drives the tortoises to venture out — food.
“Tortoises stay under ground in their burrows when its cold out and they come out looking for food when it warms up,” Morse said.
The FWC wants residents to be aware that gopher tortoises are out and about so they can help protect the creatures, which can live up to 60 years and are a vital part of the ecosystem.
“They are what we call a keystone species. Other species use their burrows for protection … against heat, against water, against the cold and against other predators. They are a very important key in keeping the wildlife system sustaining,” Morse said.
Approximately 350 other species make use of gopher tortoise burrows, studies have shown.
“We try to raise awareness and set precautions for people this time of year when the tortoises are very active. Highlands County certainly has its share of gopher tortoises, so it is of importance to residents and visitors there to know how to keep them safe,” Morse said.
The tortoises are especially vulnerable when their slow-motion roaming takes them across a street. After all, it’s not like they can jump out of the way of a passing car. To make matters even worse, some drivers may even take aim at them.
In 2012, Clemson student Nathan Weaver was trying to find a way to help protect turtles (and, by default, tortoises) as they cross roadways. Instead, he ended up discovering that some drivers will go out of their way to turn them into a speed bump. In the span of an hour, seven out of 267 cars near the Clemson campus purposely crushed rubber turtles Weaver placed on the busy streets.
Morse knows that incidents between cars and tortoises are inevitable, but was willing to give drivers more credit than that.
“I don’t think drivers purposely hit them, but it does happen, which is why we have the information and precautions in place to help keep them safe,” he said.
The FWC encourages drivers to slow down on highways to help protect gopher tortoises. If one is crossing the road, it is OK to pick it up and move it to safety — but keep it pointed in the direction it was heading.
And while the tortoise will probably appreciate a lift across the street, whatever you do, do not put it into any nearby water. It’s a tortoise (which is a land-based animal), not a turtle. Gopher tortoises don’t know how to swim.
The FWC has launched a smartphone app for both iPhone and Android that will let people to report to the FWC when and where they spot gopher tortoises. When users of the app take a photograph of a tortoise or its burrow, the photo and its GPS coordinates will be sent automatically to the FWC. An interactive map of the sightings is coming soon, the FWC reports.
App-generated data collected by citizen scientists will help guide conservation of this threatened species, the FWC said. Biological information and a quiz testing the user’s knowledge of the only tortoise east of the Mississippi River also are included in the app.
The FWC’s Gopher Tortoise Management Plan spells out goals and actions to protect the tortoises, their burrows sheltering hundreds of other species and their habitat. Prescribed burning is critical to maintaining the sandy, open fields and forests and the growth of soft-stemmed plants that tortoises need to survive. To access the management plan, go to MyFWC.com/Wildlife and select “Managed Species.”
People can report injured or dead gopher tortoises to the FWC by calling 850-921-1030 during weekdays or by contacting the Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-3922. Harming a gopher tortoise, its burrows or eggs is against the law.