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Friday, September 21, 2012

Gopher Tortoises+Prescribed Fire=Increased Biodiversity

Gopher tortoises are ancient reptiles that are known to inhabit Florida’s uplands. They can live to be 40 to 60 years old in the wild, and they are very well known for digging deep burrows, which house over 350 other species of animals. Some examples of other species known to inhabit gopher tortoise burrows are burrowing owls, Florida mice, indigo snakes, opossums, rabbits, the gopher frog, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, and gopher crickets. These burrows maintain a fairly constant temperature and humidity throughout the year, and so they are able to provide all of the inhabitants with protection from heat, cold, drought, predators, and forest fires.  These burrows are usually about 15 feet long and about 6.5 feet deep, although the largest known burrow is over 47 feet long! Because they influence such a large amount of other living organisms, they are known as a keystone species. The gopher tortoise is listed as Threatened in Florida and both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law.

The gopher tortoise lives in well-drained sandy areas with sparse tree canopy where low-growing vegetation is abundant.  Without natural fires in pine forests, the dense vegetation that grows there can impede on the specific herbs and plants that tortoises like to eat. This limits their food supply, thus fire is critical in maintaining the populations of these keystone species.

Brooker Creek Preserve is home to one of the three largest remaining gopher tortoise populations in Pinellas County.  George L. Heinrich of Heinrich Ecological Services will introduce the important role played by this keystone species during this family-oriented presentation. If you want to learn more about this keystone species and its impacts our environment free registration for the class is available here. The free class will be held Saturday, October 6, 2012 from 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM at Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center.  

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