Massive gopher tortoise die-off at St. Petersburg preserve raises questions

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Gopher tortoise like those found at Boyd Hill
Gopher tortoise. By FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (CC).

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More than a third of adult gopher tortoises have died at a nature preserve in St. Petersburg, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating.

Axios Tampa Bay reports surveyors conducting a gopher tortoise burrow survey found 57 tortoise carcasses over the last six weeks at the Boyd Hill Nature preserve.

Gopher tortoises are a threatened species that can live 40 to 60 years in the wild.  They spend around 80% of their time in their burrows.

Jeff Goessling is a biology professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. The surveyors and Guessling suspect that coyotes are the cause of the problem.

“Observing the dead tortoises that we’re finding – they’re all chewed up, so there’s clearly signs of coyotes- a large mammal predator chewing on the shells.”

And as for the unusually large number of dead tortoises this year?

“I think that what’s happened this year is, it’s probably just the right combination of the coyote’s social structure, and the coyote demographics at Boyd Hill where maybe one or two individuals – it might not even be all the coyotes – it’s probably one or two individuals that have kind of figured out they can catch tortoises in the middle of the day”

Goessling says the species is important to the environment.

“Gopher tortoises are a keystone species for many associated plants and animals.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took blood samples from living tortoises, and will also set up wildlife cameras to observe the coyotes.

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