Featured Image Credit: Tennessee Aquarium
Who knows what a Gopher Tortoise is? Well for those of you who don’t – a Gopher Tortoise is an animal that seems almost purpose-built to move earth. These reptilian excavators dig deep, winding tunnels beneath the scrublands and coastal dunes of the Southeast. These burrows provide crucial shelter for the tortoises as well as hundreds of other species when needed.
Due to habitat loss and fragmentations caused by human activity the number of Gopher Tortoises has fallen by 80 percent in the last century. For such an important species like the Gopher Tortoise a continuing decline would cause problems for a lot of other animals and species.
Dr. Josh Ennen of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute said, “If they were to disappear and their burrows were to disappear, it would affect numerous species. The importance of Gopher Tortoises is disproportionate to their abundance. By protecting this one turtle species, you’re actually protecting upwards of 400 other species, which is very important.”
In 1987 the population of Gopher Tortoises found west of the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers was federally listed as threatened. Despite being in danger, the Gopher Tortoises living east of these rivers still lack federal protection.
In a recently published study, Ennen and Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute geographic information systems analyst Sarah Sweat joined other Southeastern researchers in producing a genetic survey of Gopher Tortoises across the species’ entire range. In all, the group sampled more than 930 Gopher Tortoises from 47 sites in both the species’ listed and unlisted regions.
The study, which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management, found that Gopher Tortoises actually comprise five distinct genetic groups rather than two, as was previously supposed. Researchers found that rivers such as the Mobile and Tombigbee, represent an important barrier to genetic intermingling of these groups.
These findings will help pave the way to individually managing these sub-populations of Gopher Tortoises and preserving the species’ genetic diversity. Individually managing the species’ represents an important step in formulating a long-term conservation plan.
Guests to the Tennessee Aquarium can observe the way other animals use Gopher Tortoise burrows by visiting the Delta Country gallery inside the River Journey building. For more information about Gopher Tortoises, go to tnaqua.org/our-animals/reptiles/gopher-tortoise.
Read the full text of the study at: fwspubs.org/doi/full/10.3996/022017-JFWM-010