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Meet (and appreciate) our state reptile

Wieland Wildlife Home has a variety of animals whose species originate from all over the world. They all play an important role in educating guests about their role and importance in ecosystems. From an 8.5 kilogram (~20 pounds) red-tailed boa constrictor from Central and South America to a fluffy European rabbit, they each present a unique message. But we often take for granted those species that are close to home. We see them every day and often do not think twice about the importance they carry to the land we tread.

Georgia is home to a great diversity of species that are crucial to the ecosystem. Did you know that Georgia has a state reptile? Not many people do. Georgia’s state reptile is a gopher tortoise. This honor was given in 1989 and for good reason. Gopher tortoises are a keystone species. Well now, what is a keystone species? They are a species on which many other species in an ecosystem depend, such that if the keystone species were removed then the ecosystem would collapse. The main word “keystone” refers to the top final stone in the building of an arch. It is the piece that holds the entire arch together. Remove the “keystone” and the whole arch collapses. So, much like the arch, if the gopher tortoise species were removed from the ecosystem, there would be an ecological collapse.

Okay, so gopher tortoises are important, but why exactly? Their name gives a great clue. A gopher, meaning the mammal, digs burrows. Lots of them. These serve as homes and safety from predators. So, knowing this, we can make the connection that gopher tortoises also love to dig burrows. Their burrows can reach up to 40 feet long, be 10 feet below the surface of the earth, and a little over a foot wide. These burrows serve as shelter from predators and from the elements. It is this shelter from the elements that makes the gopher tortoise so important to other species in the ecosystem.

Wildfires occur naturally in Georgia. People also prescribe burns in areas because it helps to maintain the health and regeneration of the ecosystem. These fires, while natural, do pose some danger to the animals in the area. Luckily for them, the gopher tortoise has plenty of shelter to provide. With their burrows reaching up to 40 feet long, there is plenty of room for company seeking shelter from the fire. Hundreds of species have been found using gopher tortoise burrows, about 360 in fact. But the help from the tortoise does not stop there. These tortoises have an excellent sense of smell. They are the smoke alarm. As soon as the tortoises smell smoke, they will quickly move underground to the safety of their burrows. This gives a hint to other species that a fire is in the area and they should seek shelter as well. On the flip side, they are the first to signal safety. When gopher tortoises start to emerge from their burrows following a fire, it notifies other species that the coast is clear. This is an amazing service that the tortoise provides.

Gopher tortoise importance does not stop with their burrows, however. Their diet is mostly herbivorous, with the occasional meat such as earthworms. Since the tortoises eat so much plant matter, they are vital in seed dispersal. As we like to say, what goes in must also come out! After eating fruits, the tortoise will leave its droppings as a pre-fertilized seed packet. This aids the plant in having the opportunity to take root farther away from competition but also encased in vital nutrients. Add in the fact that these tortoises can potentially live up to 100 years, and it would not be hard to imagine one tortoise planting a forest.

It seems clear now as to why gopher tortoises are so vital to the Georgia ecosystem. As a new keeper in Wieland, I am constantly trying to expand my knowledge of Earth’s biodiversity. I find that North America’s natives can be just as intriguing as those abroad. So, while it is exciting to learn about strange and exotic species found all over the world, let us not forget the species that share the land we call Georgia.

Melanie S.
Keeper I, Ambassador Animals

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl