South of Savannah, gopher tortoises find an island getaway

Wildfires on St. Catherines Island may have been beneficial for Georgia’s state reptile

Gopher Tortoises

Photograph by Becky Seiler / iStock / Getty Images Plus

In June, lightning struck St. Catherines Island 157 times, sparking massive fires on land already parched by drought. An uninhabited sea island south of Savannah, St. Catherines is privately owned and home to numerous wildlife conservation projects, with animal residents including ring-tailed lemurs, sandhill cranes, and sea turtles. Scorching more than 2,000 acres, the blazes threatened historical and archaeological sites including the remnants of a 16th-century Spanish mission—but some animals may have benefited.

“Fire is actually the optimal tool” for habitat protection, said Dr. Tracey Tuberville, a senior research scientist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory—it helps reduce shrubbery and promote understory growth that provides food for wildlife. Tuberville has spent more than a decade conducting research on the island, figuring out how to protect gopher tortoises—Georgia’s state reptile—from extinction amid the rapid development of coastal areas in Georgia and Florida. Their habitat, longleaf pine, has declined by 95 percent in the past century; both pines and tortoises adapted over time to benefit from frequent wildfires.

Turtles and tortoises are the world’s most endangered group of vertebrates. Tuberville’s research shows the effectiveness of species translocation—when native wildlife is moved to a new habitat, such as from land being developed (say, for a big-box store outside Statesboro) to a conservation area. A 2021 study she coauthored in the Journal of Wildlife Management was the first to gather decades-long data on immature tortoises in a translocated population.

The results revealed an annual survival rate of nearly 40 percent for hatchlings, 70 percent for juveniles, and 80 percent for subadults—tortoises that have not yet reached reproductive age. Wildlife conservationists are increasingly using translocation to guide species protection in other parts of the world.

Documenting young gopher tortoises—and thus their survivorship rate—is tough, Tuberville said: “The smaller they are, the shallower their burrows,” making them prone to being killed by other animals. “And they don’t travel far from their burrows. You’re not likely to just encounter them out on the landscape when you’re walking around. They don’t come out very often.” Their burrows do, however, benefit more than just the gopher tortoises themselves: They provide shelter for at least 360 other animal species, including coachwhip snakes and field mice.

Tuberville grew up in rural east Tennessee and discovered her love of the natural world through both her father, a fisheries biologist, and a summer ecology program for middle and high school students. “I was kind of a shy girl,” said Tuberville, who, at 51, is still soft-spoken. “I found my people in that group.”

This article appears in our November 2022 issue.