Young gopher tortoises are finding a new home at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant while they come out of their shell—figuratively speaking.

The gopher tortoises, Georgia’s official state reptile, were rescued as eggs from a site owned by Southern Ionics Minerals, a company that mines sand deposits for minerals used in industrial and consumer products.

Now housed in warm terrariums at the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Brunswick station, the tortoises are being fed and cared for until they are large enough and strong enough to be released back into the wild.

The gopher tortoise lives in habitats that are rich in deep sandy soil and abundant in ground cover vegetation, which they eat. They are known for their elaborate burrows up to 48 feet long and almost 10 feet deep, which they share with other reptiles as well as mammals, amphibians and insects. More than 350 species rely on these burrows for protection from predators and sanctuary from Georgia’s hot summers and chilly winters, making the gopher tortoise critical to the health of an entire ecosystem.

Gopher tortoises at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant (Video: Bryan Fluech)

Sadly, many habitats favorable to gopher tortoises are declining as a result of development, threatening the species.

Researchers from the Odum School of Ecology, based at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, work closely with Southern Ionics Minerals, a company that prides itself on environmental stewardship and seeks to leave minimal impact on the land and leave it as they found it within months after mining.

Gopher tortoise eggs also are excavated from Georgia Department of Natural Resource’s wildlife areas, where researchers collect genetic samples to study whether relocated tortoises are breeding with native tortoises.

By helping gopher tortoises get a strong start on life, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant are helping this gentle herbivore help hundreds of species around them. These tortoises may be slow, small and shy—but their impact is anything but.

 

A graphic depicts the length of the gopher tortoise compared to the length of its burrow. A snake, spider and rabbit sit in the burrow.

 


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Leah Moss Public Relations Coordinator

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