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Georgia Journal of Science

Article Title

SURVEY OF UNMANAGED PINE FOREST FOR THREATENED REPTILE SPECIES

Abstract

Gopherus polyphemus (Dauden 1802), the gopher tortoise, is a burrowing reptile found in sandy coastal regions of the southeastern United States. Since the uninhabited burrows provide shelter to other organisms, the gopher tortoise is a keystone species. Populations are steadily decreasing, primarily because of habitat loss. The natural habitat of gopher tortoise are sandy soils of the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Miller), a habitat that has been critically reduced in the last century. These systems are known for frequent fires, sparse canopy, and abundant herbaceous ground cover. Tortoises spend 90% of their lifetime in burrows but require an open canopy, which facilitates the growth of food resources such as grasses, the flowers, fruits and leaves of herbaceous plants and shrubs. Regulated burning of land is known to improve the habitat of the gopher tortoises; burning leads to wide spaced trees, diverse shrubs, and colonization of wiregrass. Fire suppression, dormant-season burning, and other forestry practices have detrimentally affected the natural cycles of the longleaf wiregrass system, making it less suitable for gopher tortoise. Habitat fragmentation and decreasing habitat quality makes gopher tortoise more susceptible to human encroachment, and predators. The study site is a 135.99 acre parcel of land in Emanuel County, GA (N 55°51’58”E, S 48°07’32”W to N 55°48’44W, S 80°13’08”E), located adjacent to East Georgia State College. The burrow surveys were completed in late November 2016, using linear transects spaced 10 m apart. Standing biomass was estimated using a point-centered quarter method. Leaf litter and bare soil estimates were conducted visually using randomly placed 1 m sampling rings. Habitat quality across much of the study site is poor: standing biomass is dense, bare soil is scarce, and the area is heavily utilized by feral hogs and deer. Few burrows were determined to be active and must be investigated further using a camera field scope. Data from this survey will be used by the college in order to make decisions regarding land use and habitat management.

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