Head-Banging Gopher Tortoise Shows Why The Species Matters

On Gopher Tortoise Day, the charismatic reptile sheds light on an animal crucial to the ecosystem of the southeastern U.S.

While tucked away in her South Florida burrow, Grumpy Gertrude is ready to ram anyone who approaches too closely—including the biologists who study her.

The 14-year-old gopher tortoise is a favourite of Amanda Hipps, a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University who studies these (mostly) gentle and long-lived reptiles.

"Most of the tortoises are pretty shy and skittish, but not Gertrude," says Hipps. If someone approaches Gertrude's underground home she often begins to head-bob—a telltale sign of tortoise aggression—before charging forward and possibly ramming your shoes, she says. 

The reptile's feisty personality makes her a good representative for her species, which has declined due to habitat loss, disease, poaching, and more. Florida considers the gopher tortoise—which has fallen in number by up to 70 percent in the past century to around 700,000 animals—threatened with extinction. To encourage conservation of the reptile, the state celebrates Gopher Tortoise Day on April 10.

For her part, Hipps is part of a long-term gopher tortoise project, led by her graduate school advisor Jon Moore, to monitor a site that's home to around a hundred tortoises—including Gertrude.

"To conserve gopher tortoises, it's important for us to understand their impacts on the ecosystem and the relationships they have with other species," Hipps says.

Expert Diggers

Of the six tortoises native to North America, gopher tortoises are the only species found east of the Mississippi River, and they play a vital role in the environment, says Rachel King, a conservation biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Weighing up to 7 kilograms, these herbivores are equipped with powerful, elephant-like hind legs and clawed front legs specialised for digging.

Like tiny bulldozers, they use those legs to scoop out tunnels up to 12 metres long and 3 metres deep. It's these burrows that make gopher tortoises so special.

More than 350 other species—owls, coyotes, frogs, mice, and more—use tortoise dens to seek shelter and escape heat, fires, and predators. 

For this reason, gopher tortoises are considered a keystone species. "If they disappear from an environment, the ecosystem will collapse in on itself," says King.

That's part of why Hipps doesn't mind Gertrude's demeanour. “I just think she's territorial,” she says, which is a good thing. By defending her burrow, Gertrude protects the animals that share it as well.

Alpha Female

Aside from their importance to the environment, Hipps says gopher tortoises are just cool animals.

Research has shown they have complex social lives. Males frequently visit their preferred females; Gertrude, herself marked with number 159 on her shell, is often visited by a male, marked number two.

Once Gertrude rammed him from behind to shoo him off. "She's alpha. I love her," says Hipps.

Even females will travel farther to visit certain females, while avoiding some closer to them. "It's like a high school mean girls clique," she says.

Understanding tortoises and their unique quirks has helped put in place protections for the species.

For example, in the past it was legal to harvest tortoises for food, pour gasoline down their burrows to flush out rattlesnakes, or entomb them during building construction. Now, tortoises are relocated for development, rather than killed.

Even with such safeguards, threats remain. One-fifth of gopher tortoise habitat could be lost to urbanisation by the year 2060, according to a recent report. And in the eastern portion of their range, including Florida, Georgia, and southern South Carolina, gopher tortoises may be listed on the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Hipps remains hopeful that Gertrude and other gopher tortoises will continue to thrive and reproduce.

"We’ve done a lot for the gopher tortoise," she says, and "the more we learn about them, the more we realise how intricately connected they are to the ecosystem."

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