Homeward bound tortoises intercepted at nuclear plant

Tuesday, July 9, 2013 12:57 PM
Last updated Thursday, July 11, 2013 1:53 AM
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Scientists might be closer to solving one of the many curious mysteries of the gopher tortoise.

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Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist Jess McGuire places a gopher tortoise  into a burrow at Yuchi Wildlife Management Area in Burke County, where efforts are under way to re-establish the species in its ancestral range.   JOHN JENSEN/SPECIAL
JOHN JENSEN/SPECIAL
Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist Jess McGuire places a gopher tortoise into a burrow at Yuchi Wildlife Management Area in Burke County, where efforts are under way to re-establish the species in its ancestral range.

The shy, secretive reptiles have vanished in many areas because of habitat loss, and efforts to relocate colonies threatened by development are often stymied by their innate homing instinct.

“They tend to want to find their way back to where they came from,” said John Jensen, a senior biologist at Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division.

As part of a project to restore the tortoise to its original range within the state-owned Yuchi Wildlife Management Area in Burke County, researchers are exploring ways to keep relocated colonies from leaving their new habitat.

Tortoises transplanted at the 8,000-acre Yuchi site were confined in specially designed enclosures for nine months or more, Jensen said, after which they tended to stay in the area on being released.

“We were looking for the length of time needed for them to have site fidelity,” he said. “We first released 16 of them and followed 10 with radio-telemetry.”

To help compare behavior among relocated tortoises with those already living at the site, scientists placed transmitters on eight native tortoises.

After a year of monitoring, the nine-month confinement appears to have helped.

“It turns out the relocated tortoises moved quite a bit more, not distance-wise, but just more movement,” Jenson said. “But all of them stayed in the area.”

The farthest any of them wandered was 1.1 kilometers, but even that one ended up going back to its release site and building a burrow near its original pen.

In a similar study conducted in Telfair County by the Orianne Society, a conservation group, all relocated tortoises confined for nine months stayed in their new homes.

“Their tortoises did basically the same as ours,” he said. “So we’d think of this study as a success.”

Since the first release at Yuchi, additional tortoises have been placed on nearby land owned by Georgia Power Co. near the Plant Vogtle nuclear power site.

A hole in one of the specially designed enclosures allowed two tortoises to escape, several days apart, and both of them wandered up to the same security guardhouse near the plant. That’s where they were apprehended by officers who noticed numbers painted on their backs.

When scientists traced a straight line from the breached enclosure to the south Georgia site from which they were relocated, the path went directly past that guardhouse, Jensen said, indicating they were likely trying to return to their home territory.

In all, 57 tortoises have been relocated to the Yuchi site and surrounding Georgia Power preserve, adding to an estimated 44 already living in the area, Jensen said.

More tortoises will be needed before the area can be considered repopulated, though.

“The magic number, for conservation planning, needs to be 250 adults to be self-sustaining,” he said. “So we have a long way to go.”

Gopher tortoises are the official Georgia state reptile – and the continent’s largest land turtle.

They are listed as a threatened species in Georgia and are a candidate for listing on the federal endangered or threatened species list.

GOPHER TORTOISES AND THEIR LONGLEAF PINE SAVANNA HABITAT

Longleaf pine forests create some of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems and provide a critical habitat for the gopher tortoise and other threatened and endangered species.

The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species and an indicator of longleaf pine ecosystem health.

Gopher tortoises depend on deep, well-drained soils and an open understory that provides sunny sites for nesting.

Their burrows provide habitat and shelter for many at-risk species. The gopher tortoise also aids in seed dispersal for several plant species.

Habitat destruction, degradation and human predation have greatly reduced the gopher tortoise populations.

More than 90 million acres of what is now the southeastern U.S. was once covered by longleaf pine savanna. Today, about 3.4 million acres remain.

More than 80 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private or corporate ownership.

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service

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David Parker
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David Parker 07/09/13 - 01:45 pm
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They really need to save this

They really need to save this little guy sounds like. Good stuff. I've heard a good population of lightnin bugs also indicates a good balanced ecosystem.

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