I Brake for Tortoises

I heart gopher tortoises.  My best gal-pal Annie spent a large chunk of a year with the Student Conservation Association a while back working on habitat usage studies for desert tortoises in Nevada.  Apparently, her love of tortoises was infectious.  Shortly after hearing her stories of tortoise love and infaturation I became a sucker for them when I met Clyde and Shelly at the Brevard Zoo, a pair of gophers. 

These tortoises have adapted beautifully to the fire-driven landscape of scrub and oak hammock here in central Florida.  Their underground burrows can be extravagantly large (up to 35 ft is the average report) with various entrances and exits.  When flames dot the landscape, the tortoises even tolerate the presence of other wildlife seeking shelter from the smoke and heat. 

Unfortunately these turtles are threatened primarily by habitat loss and destruction in Florida.  As more of the coastal landscape is plowed under to make way for strip malls and housing complexes there is less and less available space for the gophers to use.  In fact, we have professional tortoise relocators here in the State so that developers can attempt to lessen their impact on this species.  The tortoises still lose ground, but most don’t lose their lives.  (At least its an advance over the older techniques employed, including burying the poor things alive in their burrows.) 

At present, one of the gopher’s worst enemies is the modern Floridian roadway.  Cars and trucks kill hundreds each year.  But, as most other coastal Floridians know, there is something motorists can do.

While its generally frowned upon to interact with wildlife in any way, if you see a gopher crossing a busy road, its perfectly legit to get out of your car to help them cross.  And that’s just what I did this past week. 

A few words of advice though, for all you would-be tortoise rescuers:

  • Try not to cause an accident when you brake.  I nearly caused a pileup and I’m fairly sure my insurance wouldn’t accept the “but there was a gopher tortoise in danger!” explanation.
  • When you pick them up, pick ’em up by the side of the shell (or carapace if you want to sound nerdy).  They’re herbivores but their beaks are sharp and they will bite!  Also, hold them flat in the air with their belly pointing towards the ground.  Tipping them towards the sky can put pressure on their internal organs and stress them out needlessly.
  • Third, make sure you carry them to the side of the road where they were headed, not where they were coming from.  The stubborn little things have been known to march right around and attempt to re-cross the road if you returned them to their point of origin. 
  • And finally, watch out for the hind end.  Like many other species gophers will poo on you just as they would poo on a potential predator to attempt to persuade them that they’re not a great meal.  Tortoise poo is pretty stinky so steer clear!

I hope the male I helped across Lake Underhill enjoyed a day full of delicious scrub and pine and has a long and happy life.  He did try to take a chunk out of my hand, but I really can’t blame him.  Imagine for a moment that a 30 ft. beast randomly picked you bodily off the ground, carried you for a few moments, and then arbitrarily put you back down.  I don’t know about you, but my heart would be pounding! 

Finally, a little shameless self-promotion: The Marine Photobank project continues to impress and inspire me and I was rather thrilled to see a link to my contributions in the Feb. 2008 MPB Bulletin.  I really wish my night-kayak photos of phosphorescent algae had developed from last night, but hopefully in the near future I’ll have many more interesting things to contribute!