LAKE PLACID — Graduate student and researcher Nicole White is a friend to gopher tortoises. But that’s not likely how Gopher Tortoise No. 683 saw it when White approached her burrow at Archbold Biological Station and encouraged the 43-year-old female to come out by disturbing the sand around the opening.
Archbold tortoises are bit bolder than most others, White remarked. They’ll usually come out to defend their burrows.
The annoyed tortoise did come out, with a little help. She tolerated White holding her, then sniffed about the researcher’s legs before returning to her hole in the sandy ground.
Of course, the layperson should never do this. In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as a threatened species, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website, and their burrows are protected, as well.
But 27-year-old White, who is on her third field assignment at Archbold, gets to be more hands on with these grumpy-looking reptiles because of her research.
“There are three aspects of gopher tortoise ecology that I’m studying,” White explained. The first is the social mating system of the tortoises (that is, who is mating with whom and how often?)
The second is a look at female-female aggression (it seems the Archbold lady tortoises tend to fight amongst each other while in other habitats they don’t). The third is what White called “reproductive ecology,” which includes looking at genomes of tortoises and offspring to determine who sired whom — a gopher tortoise paternity (and maternity) test.
The Archbold gopher tortoise program began in 1967, and since then, 1,310 tortoises have been marked, although with a lifespan of about 60 years, not all of them are still in the population (White has between 70 and 100 tortoises in her study).
Archbold is an ideal place to study the tortoise because it has a much denser population of the reptile than other areas.
Part of the initiative includes keeping gopher tortoise eggs in incubators in the lab and doing DNA testing on the hatchlings. The information is fed into a computer program that calculates the likely parentage of each baby tortoise. The hatchlings are then returned to wild.
White’s research may be helpful from a conservation perspective. For example, as habitats diminish and more gopher tortoises move into smaller areas, scientists can predict how increased population density might affect the species.
It’s her third year coming down to Highlands County from the University of Georgia where she’s working on her master’s and possibly switching to a Ph.D.
But science moves slowly. “We just got the results back from the first year of genotyping the hatchlings,” White said. There’s still lots more data to go through.
The project is unique because very little parentage research has been done on the species. Their lifespan is long and they are very secretive about their nests.
Other data that must be studied is the footage from wildlife cameras. These cameras are set up near the tortoises’ burrows to catch their mating practices. While reptiles are typically thought of as being asocial, White said some species appear to have a much more complex social structure than previously thought.
“It’s like watching a soap opera,” White remarked. “You get to see who is interacting with who. You find out who the dad is even though you never saw him on camera. There is always some bizarre thing that you never expected to see.”
That includes the beauty of nature, like a pair of bobcat kittens that happened to be passing by the burrow, a bear stopping by for a sniff, or “a million tortoises yawning,” she added.
White did not always know she wanted to research reptiles. She started her college career at Birmingham-Southern College as a dual Spanish/French major, but changed her course of study to biology when she was inspired by her academic advisor, who did behavioral research on frogs.
White’s first job out of school was tagging sea turtles in Costa Rica, where she lived without running water or electricity for eight months. “It was like living in a Nat Geo special,” she grinned, adding, “The Costa Rican health minister came and inspected the camp and was appalled at how we were living.”
But White said she did enjoy her time there and learned a lot. In addition to tagging turtles, they had to work to protect the nests, which were vulnerable to poachers.
As far as the gopher tortoises, her time at Archbold this year is almost up. She’ll be going back to Georgia to teach, but White said she has become very attached to the project and would like to be able to come back and collaborate on it.
“I’m interested in a lot of things, but Archbold is one of those places that people just keep coming back to,” she mused.
She added, “I think I will always come back to the tortoises.”