Gopher Tortoise Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
A flurry of sand flies out of the ground beneath a sparse canopy of longleaf pines. At 10:30 in the morning, the ground is hot enough to fry an egg, but an ancient toothless digger works on, unperturbed. The animal is a female gopher tortoise. She is 50 years old and has just finished laying five eggs. It will be two years before she can accumulate enough body reserves to lay again. Through the burrows they dig, tortoises inadvertently provide a major refuge for an array of mice, frogs, snakes and insects.
Longleaf Pine and Wire Grass Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
In Florida and other southern U.S.States, gopher tortoises dig 30-foot burrows. These holes become cool refuges for some 40 other species, including the Florida mouse, indigo snake and opossum.
Florida Mouse Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
Cottontail rabbits use vacant burrows for nesting and escape from predators, while foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and striped skunks have been known to enlarge burrows for dens. More than 300 species of invertebrates have been recorded using tortoise burrows. The tortoise is a pivotal species critical to the survival of others.
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