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Gopher tortoises endangered by hungry armadillos

08/11/2006 00:00:00 As the name implies, gopher tortoises dig long burrows. Once covering the southeastern United States, today they are hanging on by a thread. According to most records, they are still found in six states; however, that is misleading as in two of those, Louisiana and South Carolina they are severely restricted, and Mississippi is only very slightly better off. That leaves Alabama, Georgia and Florida, but Florida’s economic growth is also quickly destroying their habitat and population numbers.
Gopher tortoise. © Reed Bingham State Park.
While walking through an eleven acre tortoise colony during the summer of 2000, park mangers Jay Lewis and Chet Powell found nearly two dozen gopher tortoise nests destroyed. Natural predators such as raccoons and skunks abound at Reed Bingham State Park in Georgia, but 22 clutches in such a small area, and during a short time span, seemed high. They began to monitor the area more closely and noted a lot of armadillo activity. When gophers began laying eggs in the spring of 2001, their suspicions were confirmed as armadillos were observed travelling from one tortoise burrow to another to dig for eggs. They also saw that crows lingered in the area and would sometimes come up to steal eggs from behind the tortoises while they were still laying. It didn’t take long to see that armadillos and crows may account for 60 - 70% of the losses.

It seemed a very logical conclusion. They have the perfect setup for finding tortoise eggs: a long thin snout for sniffing them out, the feet and claws for digging and the thin snout (again) and tongue for lapping up the egg after they break it. It is now recognized that armadillos are not only eating gopher tortoise snakes, it has been determined that they're also eating the eggs of snakes, other turtles, quail, dove and other ground-nesting birds.
Gopher tortoise hatching. © Reed Bingham State Park.
So an experiment began in 2002 when two clutches of eggs from the same 11-acre tract were removed and placed in trays. After hatching, eleven babies were released exactly where they would have hatched naturally. In 2003 the experiment expanded to 12 nests and the release of 64 little tortoises. With the assistance of Sam Williams in 2004, we had amazing results with 221 babies.

A decision was made to include volunteers in 2007 as long as they were properly trained and supervised. The first group of volunteers has already completed two classes and the next step will take them outdoors where they will get some ‘hands-on’ training. Most of the volunteers joined hoping to assist with the eggs and see babies hatch, but they will also learn how to assist with a census on the adult tortoises, determine age and sex and monitor their health. Most will participate in the longleaf pine restoration project, including the relocation and seeding of wiregrass.

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