Gopher tortoise facts
Status in Georgia: threatened.
Description: The gopher tortoise can grow to 15 inches long. It has dark-gray skin and a wide, round head.
Habitat: Sandy soil, good for burrowing. They thrive in wiregrass plains and amid longleaf pines.
Diet: Grass and fruit. They’ve been known to eat carrion.
Life: Gopher tortoises may live 50 years or longer.
Source: Georgia Department of Natural Resources
The invasion came with the sound of scuffling, some scratching on the walls of his house. Part of the ceiling fell. Trapped at the rear of his home, he couldn’t get away.
Thump! Something hit him in the butt.
“And we have a tortoise!” Matt Elliott, working a remote camera, gently bumped the rear end again. It came into focus, a series of bony-looking plates, a gopher tortoise rudely interrupted from his snooze several feet below in the cool South Georgia dirt.
A state wildlife biologist, Elliott spun the cable to which the camera was attached, getting a better look — yes, no doubt about it, Gopherus polyphemus, Georgia’s official state reptile. Others crowded around to look at the tiny screen.
Some note-taking followed. It appeared to be a male, full-grown. He’d likely be spending more time outdoors soon, as the days got warmer. He’d eat tiny green leaves, maybe look for a female. And then, perhaps, Mr. Polyphemus would do his part to enhance a species whose future is far from secure.
Five biologists from the state Department of Natural Resources spent a day recently looking for tortoises near Jesup, 230 miles southeast of Atlanta. They took a series of 200-yard strolls at the Griffin Ridge Wildlife Management Area, a 5,600-acre tract of sand, live oaks and pines.
Whenever biologists saw a spray of sand scattered outside a hole, they stopped, knelt and stuck a camera into the burrow. Sometimes, they came up empty. Occasionally, they came face to face with a startled tortoise.
Or, to be more accurate: lens to butt. Tortoises tend to moon unwanted visitors. “For some reason,” said Joyce Klaus, another DNR biologist, “we see maybe 80 percent butts and 20 percent faces.”
But what faces they are. To look at a gopher tortoise is to gaze at a reptile that has been around for 60 million years.
But will they continue to survive? Unlike turtles, which can live in water, tortoises are land animals. Gopher tortoises thrive in sandy flatlands where longleaf pines grow, where grasses and weeds are within easy dining reach. They live in a relatively small area — parts of Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana. Urban sprawl and agricultural use have limited their ranges. Predators like the hatchlings, too, imperiling future populations. And it wasn’t long ago when a predatory species, Homo sapiens, brought them home to feed their families.
Hence, the stroll in the woods for a tortoise inventory.
It was a great day for it. A flawless sky stretched in all directions. Three vultures circled in the middle of all that blue. A westerly blew Spanish moss that bearded the trees. At ground level, Elliott, Klaus and fellow biologists John Jensen, Matt McTernan and Matthew Stoddard stood abreast, each about 10 yards from the other. McTernan, the new guy — he’s a “seasonal assistant,” a six-syllable synonym for “intern” — carried the camera. Klaus, holding a global positioning device, pointed west. Everyone started walking, pushing aside scrub brush and making jokes: How can you not laugh on a glorious morning when spring’s threatening to bust out at any moment?
They hadn’t gone far when …
“Burrow!” McTernan, camera cable looped around bony shoulders, pointed. A wide swath of sand — scientists call it an “apron” — splayed like a fan in the brush. At his feet, a football-shaped hole opened like a big eye. McTernan unwound the cable and pushed the camera, enclosed in a plastic cover, into the burrow. He flipped a switch, attached to a video monitor. The walls of the burrow came into view. It was a ghostly sight, roots hanging from the ceiling, darkness stretching in the distance. McTernan pushed the camera deeper. Maybe they’d find a snake? Everyone hoped so.
It’s not unusual for gopher tortoises to share their lairs with snakes, especially indigo snakes. The indigo, like the tortoise, is a species under pressure due to habitat loss. In the winter, indigos like to find an accommodating hole and slither in. The indigo and tortoise are, after all, neighbors.
Biologists say tortoises are ecologically important precisely because they’re so accommodating. All sorts of creatures use tortoise burrows to flee predators, to live through fires, to survive winter’s cruelest hours.
Biologists never know what a burrow may yield. On one tortoise hunt, searchers startled a couple of skunks. Quail burst out of another. “Once,” Jensen said, “we were attacked by a rabbit.”
McTernan gave the camera a final shake. Nothing. The walk resumed.
Walking with biologists is like tagging along with dogs. They veer off paths, sniffing out new things. They’re a curious bunch.
A lizard ran up Jensen’s pants leg. Instead of hollering and trying to shake it off, Jensen tried to catch it. The lizard got away.
A dragonfly landed on a nearby bush. Klaus zeroed in on the bug and caught it — a neat trick, considering how fast they can fly. Her colleagues formed a cluster to look. Klaus let go. It vanished in a flash of iridescence.
A swallowtail kite passed overhead — silent, fast, soon lost in the treetops. Everyone clamored with excitement. Swallowtail kites winter in South America and are among the first birds to return to Georgia every year.
“It’s a harbinger of spring,” Stoddard said.
They came across an old snakeskin — shed, they agreed, by an indigo. Jensen recalled a peer who identified three skins as indigos. A closer look proved they’d been left by coachwhip snakes. What an embarrassment!
Another burrow, this just off a sandy plain, looked promising. In went the camera. On the screen, up came the face of a tortoise.
Judging by the inner dimensions of the burrow — a wooden measuring rod estimated it was about the circumference of a basketball — the inhabitant was a hoss. A protrusion from the shell, just under the tortoise’s neck, indicated it was a male. The protrusion, or scute, is handy in tortoise fights. Tortoises, like just about every other male on this planet, scrap over females.
And so it went, in 200-yard marches across a big, flat terrain. Each took a turn inserting the camera in burrows while others watched or prowled about looking for the next hole.
Later that afternoon, the biologists stopped by the rim of a small burrow, maybe 10 inches across. The camera revealed a youngster, perhaps 12 years old, barely out of adolescence. This was a good sign.
“It’s good to see there’s some reproduction going on around here,” Elliott said.
Over the course of about five hours, the biologists discovered six tortoises, an average of one every 300 or so yards. This was a good ratio, they agreed – enough room for a healthy tortoise to eat, breathe and find a mate.
The biologists jumped back in their trucks and called it a day. Not far away, Mr. Polyphemus snoozed, dreaming perhaps, of warmer days and hard-shelled cuties.