SARASOTA, Fla. (April 18, 2017) – The gopher tortoises that inhabit six acres at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s entrance were once a source of concern to environmentalists as construction got underway for the new campus. Now the creatures are under the watchful eye of a USFSM researcher and group of students.
Since January, Dr. Edie Banner, who teaches chemistry in the College of Science & Mathematics, has led a small team of students into the conservation area as part of a survey for the development of a monitoring program.
The students are counting burrows currently and formerly inhabited by the tortoises and examining nearby plant life that serve as food sources for the creatures.
“Typically, within a conservation area, for the most part you leave the area alone, but occasionally you do need people to check on the area to make sure it’s still a suitable habitat to sustain the tortoises,” she said.
Dr. Banner and her students started mapping the burrows and identifying forage plants after she received training and a state permit to enter the area late last year. Now, up to twice weekly, she and three biology students – Jaime Ruehle, Lisa Kuhn and Lauren Gadoury – examine the site to determine whether the species are thriving or how they might be helped.
The students must take care not to disturb the area’s wildlife, however they may collect plant samples for later study. Ruehle and Kuhn, both seniors, say the experience, even within such a confined space, can yield intriguing examples of mutual dependency in nature.
“Seeing these species in their natural habitat, I just feel it brings the whole picture full circle,” said Ruehle, who plans to study veterinary medicine after graduation.
Surveying the burrows, the students looked for signs of occupancy by noting whether paw and drag marks indicative of tortoise activity appear near the burrow entrances. At burrows that lacked those traces, they fed a 9-foot cable with a small camera inside to search for other species known to inhabit abandoned tortoise homes.
“You never know what you’ll find,” Dr. Banner explained. “Hundreds of species can use the burrows; mice, spiders, insect life and snakes have been known to take up residence in them.”
Tortoise burrows can run 10-feet deep and up to 50-feet long. The animals use them for protection against predators and to lay eggs. Dr. Banner cautioned against examining active burrows so as not to disturb the tortoises.
The field experience benefits the students in more ways than one. It makes their instruction come alive in a way traditional classroom instruction doesn’t, plus it may prove useful later as the students progress in their academic careers.
In addition to earning credit as part of a course project, the students can cite the field experience in their graduate school applications. All three said they intend to pursue grad school.
“The work is very hands-on,” Ruehle said. “Not a lot of colleges offer these kinds of experiences to undergraduates.”
Kuhn, who’s thinking about entering the health field, said she appreciates how the burrows provide habitat for numerous species, revealing a symbiotic feature outside the tortoises’ immediate community. The burrows can harbor up to 350 different creatures.
So far, the students haven’t encountered any snakes, although they did observe a five-line skink, a type of lizard. “It’s interesting just to document the ecology and species that live in the burrows,” Kuhn said.
Gadoury, who hopes to become a marine biologist, has taken on a separate role. She’s been tasked with observing plant life around the burrows to better understand the tortoises’ diet and determine whether it should be augmented to aid the species.
“What I enjoy about being here is that we’re doing something new and different and it’s hands-on learning, not like being a lab where conditions are structured,” she said. “Out here, things are not perfect and controlled like in a lab, and I like that.
“I also like learning the techniques of field biology,” she added. “This will be something I’ll be able to use when I enter graduate school.”
Gopher tortoises are listed as threatened in Florida. They typically thrive in sandy upland areas eating a mix of low-growing shrubs, leaves, flowers, cacti, grasses and weeds. The greenery provides most of their water. They generally feed within 160 feet of their burrows.
Once the initial surveys are completed and the continuous monitoring program is in place, the collected data will be summarized in a report and disseminated to organizations that track gopher tortoise populations and habitats in Florida, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Natural Areas Inventory.
“This has been a great learning experience for the students,” Dr. Banner said. “They’ve all be very excited to be a part of it.”