I’m spending ten or so days teaching on St Catherine’s Island, a coastal barrier island south of Savannah, GA. The island is swarming with interesting creatures; I’ll highlight just one in this post, with more to follow.
The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is the only “true tortoise” (Family Testudinidae) in eastern North America (the other shelled critters here are all turtles of one kind or another, even the terrestrial box turtle whose kinship is much closer to pond turtles than it is to tortoises). Gopher tortoises dig very long burrows in which they spend most of their time. Some burrows are four or five feet deep and twenty feet long. These subterranean homes help the animals escape the worst of the heat and the cold. They also provide a safe space when fires roar through the open piney forests that is the preferred habitat of the species. These fires help to maintain the savannah-like structure of the forest, but they are obviously also dangerous to resident animals.
The population of gopher tortoises on St Catherine’s came from the mainland. They were moved here when a commercial development destroyed their habitat. Since then, the tortoises here have thrived and bred. They live in a large pasture that is maintained as an open savannah. From the surface, all that is visible are the sand piles around the entrance to each burrow. It is seriously hot here at the moment, so the animals usually stay below in the cool.
Bess Harris, a graduate student at the University of Georgia, is on the island studying the tortoises. She kindly took some time out of her afternoon to talk about her work and show us some of the animals that she was fitting with radio-transmitters.