Warning! I brake for gopher tortoises! I probably should have that bumper sticker on my car. I also brake for scrub jays, quaker parrots, bald eagles, sandhill cranes, crested caracaras, Key Deer…you get the idea. I try to check my rearview mirror before braking. The driver behind me may not be as interested in the wildlife as I am, and I don’t want to meet by accident.
With the exception of the sandhill cranes, the birds are usually safe above the traffic on wires or trees. But I worry about our gopher tortoises. Seemingly unaware of the dangers they face, they slowly make their way across the road. It’s a death wish in high traffic areas. Usually you can see them far enough away to slow down in time. They resemble a flattened World War 2 German army helmet moving at glacial speed. But I cringe when I see drivers too preoccupied to notice them. Many tortoises are struck and killed.
While vehicles kill the reptiles, their actual homes face destruction too. In our part of Florida they like to dig their burrows on dry sandy soil. Unfortunately for them, we humans want to place our homes and businesses on the same kind of real estate. Since much of Florida is a swamp, dry land is desirable. In a contest between humans and tortoises, you can imagine who will win. In Florida they are considered a threatened species, and regulations require removing and relocating tortoises before land can be developed. But this practice was not always followed. Rather than waste time and incur costs, some landowners bulldozed over the burrows and buried the tortoises alive. These poor creatures faced a prolonged death of dehydration and starvation. Shockingly, this horror was legal at one time, but thankfully the state now forbids this action. But some people ignore the law and continue this cruelty. We can help by staying vigilant. If you see a parcel of land being cleared and know the tortoises have burrows on it, check out the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website–myFWC.com–to see if the proper permit has been granted to relocate the animals. If not, report it to the Commission so they can investigate.
The gopher tortoises battle other factors in addition to manmade hazards. Respiratory disease has spread throughout their range, sickening and killing many. Exotic species of plants and animals have also created problems. Non-native plants crowd out the natural habitat, limiting their burrowing options and food supply, and invasive animal species eat them and their eggs.
If you are wondering why we should care about some ancient reptiles, consider this: gopher tortoises are a keystone species. Many animals depend on their burrows to survive. Rabbits, mice, lizards, burrowing owls, snakes, foxes, and skunks are among almost 350 species who depend on these burrows for shelter. If the tortoises die off so will these other creatures. The result would be disastrous to the critter community. A deadly domino effect will occur, drastically damaging our ecosystems. And eventually, that will affect even us humans.
So join me. Brake for gopher tortoises! And scrub jays, squirrels, cranes, deer, snakes, opossums, owls, foxes…you get the idea.