MS Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

The Gopher Tortoise: An "Underground" Keystone Species for Mississippi

Monday, October 03, 2016
By Kathy Shelton and Tamara Campbell


For most folks, the mention of the word "tortoise" conjures up images of that fabled footrace with the hare. A few others may immediately think of the gargantuan tortoises of the Galapagos. We, too, have our own tortoise right here in the Magnolia State, and it is just as fascinating. The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is one of only five tortoise species remaining in North America. It makes its home in the sandy soils of south Mississippi with other populations ranging from southern Florida to South Carolina.

You will likely be reading this in the cool of your living room during the hottest months of July and August. This burrowing tortoise takes refuge from the hot Mississippi summers and periodic fires by digging burrows with its shovel-like front feet. These burrows can be up to 40 feet long and 10 feet deep! They are easily identified by the shape, which conforms to the shape of the tortoise's shell, and the characteristic mound of loose dirt at the burrow entrance.

Lately, biologists and conservationists have become concerned about recent declines in gopher tortoise populations, particularly because it is considered a keystone species of the Southern piney woods. What is a keystone species? Much like the central keystone at the top of a stone arch, which bears the weight and provides central support for all the other blocks, a keystone species serves a critical role that influences and in some cases, sustains other species. The gopher tortoise can be described this way, as it shares its burrow home with dozens of other animals, called commensal species, like indigo snakes, rabbits, mice, opossums, insects, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, and the endangered dusky gopher frog.

Fewer gopher tortoises also means a decline in some of these other species, which depend on the burrow for survival. We will explain how management that sustains the gopher tortoise can help sustain wildlife populations and overall biodiversity in the piney woods ecosystem of South Mississippi.

Map

Distribution and Federal Listing Status of the Gopher Tortoise.

Why are tortoise populations declining?

Compared to some species like wild turkeys or white-tailed deer, populations of long-lived species like the gopher tortoise are often slow to recover. Gopher tortoises do not reach reproductive maturity until they are 9-15 years old and on average, nesting females only produce six eggs per year. Like many other ground dwellers, gopher tortoises are extremely susceptible to common nest predators such as raccoons, fox, skunks, armadillos, coyotes, and more recently, the introduced fire ant. Although it is strictly prohibited today, the gopher tortoise was once a highly sought-after local food with no harvest regulations. All of these factors have contributed to the declines, but habitat loss is by far the main reason for today's low numbers.

Gopher tortoise habitat consists of well-drained, sandy areas with an open tree canopy often dominated by longleaf pine with a diverse community of native plants in the understory (at ground level). Other species of conservation concern, such as the bobwhite quail, use this habitat too, and have also experienced similar population declines. Historically, tortoise habitat was maintained by naturally occurring fire. In the absence of fire, however, the open pine habitat preferred by these species grow little ground vegetation. Ragweed, partridge pea, asters, blackberries, huckleberries, and native grasses like bluestems are important food and cover plants for these species. These plants thrive with lots of sunlight but suffer in the shade of unmanaged forests. An overall reduction in fire, conversion

of these open pine-grasslands to other land uses and the over-whelming spread of non-native invasive species, such as cogon grass and Japanese climbing fern, have also contributed to a decline in suitable gopher tortoise habitat. 

Although large, contiguous forest lands like Marion County Wildlife Management Area (WMA), DeSoto National Forest, and adjacent Camp Shelby Training Center play a key role in conserving this species, the majority of potential gopher tortoise habitat still remains on private lands. Therefore, it is extremely important to work with forest landowners and others to manage private lands. Key conservation programs that provide technical and financial resources help gopher tortoises and other species of concern. The Longleaf Pine Initiative and Working

Lands for Wildlife Program through the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Mississippi's Fire on the Forty Program, the Forest Resource Development Program, and Partners for Fish and Wildlife are helping private landowners enhance, restore, and protect gopher tortoise habitat.

Common management practices available to landowners for cost-share include longleaf pine restoration, herbicide application to control unwanted plants, forest stand improvement, and prescribed fire. These practices benefit a host of game species in addition to the gopher tortoise.

Helping the Gopher Tortoise helps many other wildlife species

BurrowDuring a recent project at Marion County WMA, MDWFP managers treated nearly 750 acres of open-pine forest with herbicides and prescribed fire on more than 1,800 acres to improve conditions. As part of the project, vegetation and birds were surveyed in treated areas and non-treated areas before and after the herbicide applications and burning. Gopher tortoise populations were also surveyed to establish a baseline, but as previously mentioned, they do not respond immediately to management. Therefore, biologists willcontinue to monitor tortoise populations during the next several years. Bobwhite quail, however, experienced nearly a three-fold increase, and several other species respond positively to habitat  improvements.

Similar benefits are also seen on private lands, where nearly 80 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is found. Scott Leininger, co-owner of Woodford Ridge Farm, has used prescribed fire, longleaf pine reforestation, thinning, mechanical mulching, and herbicide applications (to control cogon grass) on his Greene County property to help achieve his deer management goals. In addition to growing larger deer, and seeing more quail and turkey, the presence of gopher tortoises has been growing on Woodford Ridge Farm. "We knew of five burrows five years ago, and we know of at least 12 burrows today; and we added four hatchlings to our sightings last spring," said Leininger. Along with their ecological benefits, the tortoises have become a conversation starter and a keen interest for many guests who try to catch a glimpse of them while hunting or walking the property. "Many of our guests have never heard of the gopher tortoise, and they are fascinated once we explain the significance of their presence, their uniqueness, and what it means to us."

How can you help the Gopher Tortoise?

You do not have to own land in South Mississippi or even love reptiles to help reverse the decline of the gopher tortoise. Share your newly acquired knowledge of the gopher tortoise and its habitats with others. Help others understand the importance of prescribed fire in managing the piney woods ecosystem. Everyone should become better aware of the special relationship between this keystone species and the places where they live. Habitat conservation for unique species like the gopher tortoise undoubtedly helps some of our most common and popular animals. It is also important to understand that these special habitats and species are not maintained by accident,

but are only supplied through active land management which includes forestry and prescribed fire. If you would like more information about gopher tortoises, contact Kathy Shelton with the MDWFP's Museum of Natural Science or a Private Lands Program Biologist (601) 432-2199.



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