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Teen turtles get new digs
Gopher tortoises set free on post
Workers dig a hole for one of the turtles. - photo by Photo by Denise Etheridge

All about gopher turtles

• The average gopher tortoise’s life span is about 80 years.
• Gopher tortoises reach sexual maturity around age 20.
• Males weight between 12-14 pounds and are 14-15 inches long.
• The species is found in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.

One-hundred and thirteen adolescent gopher tortoises were released into the sand hills of Fort Stewart’s range this week. The release was a cooperative effort between Georgia Southern University biologists and the installation’s Fish and Wildlife branch.
“Half of these juvenile tortoises are being placed back into their natural habitat and the remaining placed into ‘new’ areas to help augment the resident population,” Fort Stewart Directorate of Public Work’s Environmental Division spokesperson Amanda Hinesley said last week.  
Hinesley said these new areas have undergone habitat improvement such as heavy duty mowing, herbicide application and prescribed fire.  
“These methods allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, which in turn produces a groundcover layer suitable for consumption by the gopher tortoise, and enhances a healthy forest ecosystem for many of our native species,” she said.

The gopher tortoise is a protected species in the state of Georgia. Biologists plan to monitor the progress of the released tortoises over time.
The 113 tortoises released on Fort Stewart were part of a head-start study conducted by GSU professor Dr.  David Rostal, who began his study in 1997 with the collection of gopher tortoise eggs from the post range. The eggs were then hatched and raised in captivity by Rostal and his staff of graduate students.
“These tortoises have basically been living in plastic boxes,” Rostal said. “They’ll instinctually know what to do when we set them down.”
The professor described the tortoises as “incredible digging machines.” Still, post biologists helped make the shelled creatures feel more at home by digging starter burrows. Burrow site coordinates were then logged into a GPS system, so scientists can keep track of the released tortoises.
“They’re difficult to study,” Rostal said, explaining the animals spend 80 percent of their lives underground.
The “teenage” tortoises released were between 2 and 10 years old, the GSU professor said. Gopher tortoises live long lives, with an average life span of 80 years, according to Rostal.
“It takes them 20 years to reach sexual maturity in the wild,” he said. Rostal explained how he had to perform laparoscopy on the tortoises he raised in captivity to determine their genders.
The professor said he has “excellent data” on 500 marked adult gopher tortoises on Fort Stewart, but lacks information on “growth patterns and dispersal rates” for juvenile tortoises.
“We will see what effect size has on survival and what effect quality habitat has on growth rates,” Rostal said. He added Fort Stewart is an excellent habitat for the gopher tortoise.
The professor said gopher tortoise males weigh 12-14 pounds and are 14-15 inches long. The species is found in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana as well as Georgia, he said,
“We feel the tortoises are doing well on Fort Stewart,” post Fish and Wildlife Branch Chief Tim Beaty said. Beaty said by closely monitoring the tortoises’ progress, the reptiles can effectively be kept off the endangered species list. There are five endangered species that call Fort Stewart home: the wood stork, the short-nose sturgeon, the frosted flatwoods salamander, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the eastern indigo snake.
The Fish and Wildlife Branch chief said he and fellow Natural Resources Management Unit personnel, including foresters, biologists, archeologists, historians and engineers, are committed to managing Fort Stewart’s natural resources wisely.
Earlier this spring, Beaty accepted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2009 Military Conservation Partner Award on behalf of Fort Stewart.

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