Gopher Tortoises

Collaborators: Aaron L. Holbrook, Dr. Carl P. Qualls, Dr. Jodie Jawor, & Dr. Micheal Davis

Gopher TortoiseThe Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) inhabits most of the original range of the Longleaf Pine Savannah in the southeastern United States (LA, MS, AL, GA, SC, and FL) and is Federally threatened in Mississippi.  They get their name from the burrows that they dig for protection from predators, fire, and temperature extremes and as a keystone species many other species rely on these burrows or the tortoise itself for survival. 



In Mississippi, populations can be characterized as aging with little to no recruitment, meaning that there is a lack of young tortoises to replace the older individuals when they die.  In some of the low recruitment sites within Mississippi, it has been observed that many hatchling tortoises fail to dig burrows, Gopher Tortoise pens at Lake Thoreau Environmental Centerinstead seeking shelter under vegetation or in shallow “pallet burrows” that provide little protection from predators, fire, or temperature extremes, possibly contributing to higher hatchling mortality and lower recruitment.  In addition to the research on the USM campus looking at clutch sizes, hatching success, and growth rates in captive reared hatchlings, we built individual enclosures at Lake Thoreau Environmental Center to assess burrowing behavior to determine if there were significant differences between juvenile tortoises whose eggs were collected from high and low recruitment sites.  The enclosures also served to acclimate the tortoises to outdoor conditions before being released to their original collection sites for further telemetry research.