Since Fall 2020, Eckerd College’s herpetology research team is housing 37 baby gopher tortoises in the college’s greenhouse located outside the James Center of Molecular and Life Sciences.
The herpetology research team is composed of 8 Eckerd students and one professor doing out-of-class research, in herpetology, which includes reptiles and amphibians.
Gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in western Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. In Florida, they are protected solely by state law and are currently being assessed under a Species Status Assessment (SSA) to determine the state of the species.
In summer 2020, Assistant Professor of Biology Jeffrey Goessling was contacted by a wildlife management employee about a threatened habitat of gopher tortoises in Geneva, Alabama. The area of about 8,000 acres contained only about 100 tortoises spread apart. The idea of the project is to relocate the gopher tortoises into one contained area in hopes that they will stay closer together in order to reproduce and increase the population.
This is what started the Geneva Headstart project on Eckerd’s campus.
“There’s one overarching goal, which is to grow these tortoises as big as we can possibly get them,” Goessling said. “We know the bigger they are the more likely they are to survive for a conservation service.”
The average tortoise clutch contains about six eggs each, which means the female tortoise lays about 6 eggs per reproductive period.
From the wildlife management area in Geneva, Goessling received six clutches of tortoise eggs about two weeks before they were expected to hatch, then created habitats for them in the Eckerd greenhouse. The 37 tortoises were randomly distributed between six tubs, holding six or seven turtles each.
Currently, the tortoises are the size of clementines, and will grow to be the size of a grapefruit before they can be released. Full sized gopher tortoises can reach 15 inches total, but usually average 9-11 inches.
Tortoise eggs are often eaten in the wild by raccoons, snakes and other predators so allowing the newly hatched tortoises to grow in a protected habitat increases the survival rate of hatchlings from around 20 percent to 100 percent. No tortoises have died while under Goessling’s care.
With space limited on campus, Goessling is in the process of partnering with other zoological partners to help house the tortoises.
Currently, the project is not funded by an outside source or a school grant. Publix Supermarket donates a large amount of produce scraps to feed the tortoises and the setup in the greenhouse was funded through Goessling’s research.
While the tortoises are living on campus, students are conducting their own research to aid in tortoise studies and understanding the species.
Sophomore Sean Jacobson is studying the effects of inoculation of gut fauna in the tortoises to further understand their digestive system. This is studying the bacteria in the gut of the tortoise to see if it is beneficial to the organism.
“Our study is to see if baby tortoises eat adult fecal matter, will it kick start their gut?” Jacobson said. “While this seems gross to us, this is a very natural process.”
The research team is also measuring the growth rates of the tortoises. Tortoises from larger families tend to be smaller in size, while tortoises from smaller families tend to be larger in size, according to Goessling. All 37 of the tortoises were born at the same time, so different growth rates are noted.
“This project is an overlap of many different interests and stakeholders all driven by one goal which is to produce the biggest, healthiest tortoise that can be raised in a greenhouse,” Goessling said. “But will one day face the perils of mother nature.”
According to Goessling, about 10 or more clutches of eggs are expected to arrive in the fall, so another 60-100 tortoises could be joining the project on campus or with outside partners in the zoological community.
This project is expected to last until the tortoises have created a high density site in the Geneva area, and the current tortoises in the Eckerd greenhouse are expected to return in August 2023.
This project is authorized under state scientific collecting permits from both the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Tortoises should not be handled without proper legal permits.