A different type of Engineer- the Gopher Tortoise

Happy Gopher Tortoise Day!! On April 10th, the state of Florida officially celebrates its only native tortoise- the Gopher Tortoise. Gopher Tortoises are both federally and state listed as threatened species in Florida. The gopher tortoise featured below, also known as 21, calls the Pine Rocklands within Zoo Miami on the Richmond Tract home.

In my post on Pine Rocklands (click here to be directed there), I described the massive loss of this now critically endangered habitat. Miami has seen the loss of its Pine Rockland ecosystems over the years and the gopher tortoises have also declined with them. Additionally, early settlers of this land found the tortoises quite tasty and their population declined for this reason as well.

Meet 21, a resident of the Pine Rocklands within Zoo Miami

My lab mate, Adrian Figueroa- a soon- to- be graduate of FIU- has studied gopher tortoises for the past year and a half, through an internship with Zoo Miami. He introduced me to 21, but she really did not want to stick around and chat with us….

… and why wouldn’t she want to run home when her home is a cozy burrow like the one below.

No one was home today unfortunately

When gopher tortoises create these burrows, they not only provide a home for themselves, but a home for other species such as snakes, lizards, and gopher frogs as well. In the video below, Adrian describes how gopher tortoises build these burrows- with their feet!

Gopher tortoises are what ecologists call “ecosystem engineers.” This essentially means that gopher tortoises help shape their home… and one of the main ways they help shape their environment is, well, by POOPING!

Ever wonder what gopher tortoise poop looks like? I doubt you did before, but now you know! Adrian is holding dried gopher tortoise poop- and this what he spends his time researching: how gopher tortoises spread seeds throughout their environment through their poop!

So yes, Adrian did wash his hands after showing us what’s in some of that poop. As funny as it might be to work with poop, Adrian’s research suggests that gopher tortoises fulfill an important role by pooping out seeds across their environment, and his future research will focus on determining the rate at which tortoises affect germination.

You’re probably wondering- what does this have to do with climate change? Nothing is safe from the effects of climate change- and that includes the gopher tortoises and the Pine Rocklands. While the Richmond Tract in Miami may sit on higher elevation, the Pine Rocklands in the Florida Keys do not- and they will likely be lost to rising seas. At some point, we will need to make a decision, as a society, on whether we should save the species living in those areas and maybe move them to Miami. We live in a miraculous world in which tortoises can effect their own world through their poop- and this is worth saving.

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