By Nick Simonson
While my own speed has never been hare-like, or cat-like or really like any fast animal in the natural world, I felt speedy as I made the turn on my first morning run of vacation with a pace of 7:40, a full 20 seconds faster than my usual average. I’d give some of it back on the last three miles of the run, but would still finish up at 7:49 per mile. Perhaps it was the rush of being on new paths and out of the resurgent winter and second spring back home that lightened my stride, or maybe it was the warmth of the gulf air on southwest Florida’s coastline that gave me a touch of quickness in my step.
As I cooled down from the effort, I found that one of nature’s slowest specimens can have its own surprising burst of speed as well. While rounding a corner and heading to the beach, my brother-in-law spied the shell of a gopher tortoise working its way through the vegetation. With camera in hand, I closed in to get a better look, but by the time I neared the shelled reptile, it scooted with all due haste into its burrow in the sandy soil beneath a stand of cacti. Its surprising speed caught me off guard as I watched the last of its dusty gray carapace vanish into the earth, and I was disappointed I would not get a picture of the tortoise, fooled by its quick dash into its burrow.
Gopher tortoises are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in the western portion of their range which goes into western Alabama, southern Missouri and eastern Louisiana, while their status in the state of Florida and the rest of their range which includes Georgia, is under review at this time. Dependent on the longleaf pine biome found along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, part of the reason for the concern for the species is the expanding development in the form of condominiums, commercial facilities and other rapidly expanding changes to the natural landscape where the gopher tortoise lives, with each reptile having a relatively small home range.
As its name suggests, the gopher tortoise is an adept digger, creating burrows that can run up to 50 feet in length. This activity not only helps the gopher tortoise avoid the intense heat of summer in the south, but also protects them from predators and the elements, including the occasional wildfires, like those burning across northern Florida and southern Georgia right now. In addition to providing refuge to the gopher tortoise, these long burrows also shelter hundreds of other kinds of animals, including lizards, amphibians, mammals, insects and even birds, making the reptile a keystone species which has an incredible protective impact on the environment around it, despite being somewhat rare.
This makes the gopher tortoise even more valuable to its ecosystem and the diversity in it, as its burrowing activity supports the survival of a multitude of other species.
Primary predators of the gopher tortoise include racoons which do significant damage to the tortoise’s eggs and hatchlings, as well as foxes, armadillos and skunks. While direct human predation and consumption of gopher tortoise meat is predominantly in the past (they were known as the “Hoover Chicken” during the Great Depression), human activity which has converted tens of thousands of acres into farmland or commercial real estate remains the greatest threat to the gopher tortoise’s current populations, and recent Florida law has been enacted to prevent unnecessary destruction of their habitat, and incidental killing of gopher tortoises.
After an hour or so of surf casting on the windswept beach, where I began to feel the effects of my morning run with each wave that slammed into my knees, I made my way back to our family’s rental. Along the way, we spied the gopher tortoise about fifty yards from where we first encountered it. On the edge of a crushed-oyster shell driveway, it paused while chewing on some fibrous materials and warily watched me as I approached.
This time though, it made no mad dash for a nearby burrow, but instead paused as if basking in the afterglow of a hard-run race, almost mugging for my camera lens, with head held high. After all, the gopher tortoise is a surprising creature with an impact on the world around it that is far greater than its small form and plodding demeanor might suggest, making it worthy of renewed consideration and protection…in our outdoors.