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Gopher tortoises are significant animals thanks to the important role they play within Florida’s ecosystem. In the wild, gophers are considered “land-lords” of the scrub. Their burrows provide food, shelter, and protection for over 300 different species of animals. Maintaining a fairly constant temperature and level of humidity, these underground burrows are crucial to species such as the scarab beetle, indigo snake, gopher frog, Florida mouse and armadillo, just to name a few. Because so much wildlife depends on this animal and its home, scientists have designated the gopher tortoise a keystone species. An impact on this creature has a direct effect on its burrow co-inhabitants.

Having roamed the earth with dinosaurs, turtles are silent keepers of our past. Florida’s rich ecosystems make for idyllic turtle habitats, but today’s shelled reptiles are finding fewer places to live. Loss of habitat remains its greatest threat. Land that is altered for mining, development, corporate agriculture and forestry has negative effects on turtle populations. In the past, developers in Florida could apply for an incidental take permit if turtles were found on site. The permit allowed developers to bury tortoises alive, while setting aside funds for the purchase of turtle-preservation lands elsewhere. Smaller parcels of land coupled with slow reproductive rates have drastically reduced turtle populations. As a result, incidental take is no longer permitted and turtles found on development sites must be relocated to different locations.

Despite the resilient nature of turtles, these reptiles face an uphill battle. Turtle meat is considered a delicacy in many cultures, and for hundreds of years, hunting turtles for consumption was common practice in the United States. During the Great Depression, “Hoover chickens” or Gopher tortoises became a reliable source of protein for many families in Florida. Other turtles, such as the water-loving Suwannee cooter (nicknamed Suwannee chicken) and the Diamondback terrapin have also been exploited for their meat. Also, gopher races were once a popular form of activity in rural areas. However, rarely were the animals returned to their original home-ranges, if released at all. For the lucky few that made it home, they risked spreading disease and parasites. As a result of these impacts and more, Gopher tortoise races are no longer allowed in Florida.

On average, more than 23,000 vehicles traverse U.S. Highway 27 near Tallahassee, Florida each day, which makes it the world’s deadliest road for turtles. But, animals aren’t the only ones at risk. When hit by a car, turtles and other creatures become “dangerous projectiles” that can cause serious harm to motorists. For the moment, a silt-material fence is used to direct turtles away from the road, but conservationists hope the construction of a permanent guide wall and culvert system along Highway 27 will help save lives… both human and animal.



Resources for this article have been provided by the Gopher Tortoise Council, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.




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