Gopher tortoises are fairly elusive creatures. Usually the only sign you see of them is their burrows or ravaged foliage.
But recently a Mobile, Ala., tortoise allowed Marshall Colburn, a Soil Conservation Technician with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a rare, up-close-and-personal moment as she laid her eggs in a freshly cultivated field.
“I was on a landowner’s property doing a site assessment for the Working Lands for Wildlife program, when I observed a gopher tortoise laying eggs,” Colburn says. “She had dug a nest about 20 yards away from her burrow in soft soil where the landowner had planted chufas [a type of nut-grass typically planted for wildlife] the day before. I was able to stand and take photos about two feet from the apron of the nest…It was pretty cool!”
The gopher tortoise is known as a keystone species in the longleaf pine ecosystem of the Southeast because it digs burrows that provide shelter and habitat for many other animal species. It is also considered an indicator of longleaf pine ecosystem health. Gopher tortoises contribute to biological diversity by dispersing seeds found in the fruits and berries they eat.
Unfortunately, as the once–vast longleaf forests disappear, so does the gopher tortoise’s habitat. The population has been reduced to the extent that the tortoise is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act throughout the western part of its range.
Working Lands for Wildlife is a partnership between NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that offers landowners voluntary, incentive-based conservation assistance to restore habitat for seven targeted wildlife species in decline in 36 states, including the gopher tortoise in Alabama.
It is hoped that through the success of the Working Lands for Wildlife program, gopher tortoise habitat will improve to allow many tortoises to lay their eggs—whether a conservationist is watching or not.
Find out more about Working Lands for Wildlife.
Check out more conservation stories on the USDA blog.