There is an effort underway in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to restore the natural sandhill ecosystems in the Southeast. In the next 3 years, a $1 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will go towards restoring 38,500 acres of sandhill habitat in the Southeast. 16,600 acres are in Florida. What does any of this have to do with the gopher tortoise? The gopher tortoise is a threatened species in Florida and it makes its burrows in the sandhills. With the sandhills being bulldozed for development, the gopher tortoise is barely off the federal list of endangered species.
A sandhill habitat is a type of longleaf pine forest and is considered one of the most critically endangered ecosystems in the world. Longleaf ecosystems once covered most of the coastal plain of the Southeast. Today, they exist on only 3 percent of their former area. These habitats have disappeared due to urbanization, agriculture, industrial forests and lack of management.
Lack of management???
Yes. Specifically, fire suppression.
In the absence of fire, the longleaf forest becomes overgrown, limiting the wildlife and plant life that depend on the habitat. Fire burns away the undergrowth, but leaves the tall longleaf pines intact.
But back to the gopher tortoise. The gopher tortoise is a keystone species in the sandhill. Its burrow is host to many other species that depend on the sandhill habitat. These include rabbits, snakes, frogs, insects, and invertebrates for a total of over 300 species. Some of these species are tortoise burrow obligates, which means that they are found only in gopher tortoise burrows. If the gopher tortoise disappears, so do a variety of other species. These burrows also provide protection from fire as many species will hide in a gopher tortoise burrow to ride out the flames. These burrows are deep and can be very large. They also provide a cool resting place for inhabitants during the hot Florida summer.
So the next time you see a gopher tortoise or burrow, remember that his home is home to many and that the gopher tortoise is a key player in the ecosystem. He may be slow, but he’s an important team member.