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(News-Press.com) - With gopher tortoise breeding season under way,Floridians will be seeing an increasing number of these tank-like reptiles making their slow dash across area roads.

People can help tortoises not only by not running them over but also by using a new smartphone app to report sightings to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"In the past, we'd get calls from people telling us they saw a gopher tortoise in their neighborhood or crossing the road , and they'd ask what they should do," said Deborah Burr, FWC's gopher tortoise program coordinator. "We'd tell them, 'Nothing. Let it be.' We still want people to let it be, but with the gopher tortoise app, people have a way to participate and contribute to conservation efforts."

Gopher tortoises, which are classified as threatened in Florida, need conservation.

To get the gopher tortoise app, visit: myfwc.com

According to the state's 2006 gopher tortoise status report, the species' population declined by 50 to 60 percent over the previous three gopher tortoise generations (a gopher tortoise generation is 31 years).

A major cause for the species' decline is loss of suitable habitat: Before European settlement, Florida's estimated gopher tortoise habitat was 10.8 million acres; in 2006, it was 3.3 million acres, a 70 percent decrease.

"Gopher tortoises inhabit the same land people do, uplands, which are not protected," said gopher tortoise expert Nora Demers, associate professor of biology and interdisciplinary studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. "Wetlands are protected, but gopher tortoises are in competition with us for uplands. A lot of pine flatwoods have been removed and rooftops put in."

Other reasons for the drop in gopher tortoise numbers include:

Gassing burrows: Gopher tortoises dig burrows, which are shared by more than 350 other animal species. People used to pour gas into gopher tortoise burrows to force rattlesnakes out, and the toxic fumes often killed resident tortoises. This practice was banned in 1978.

Human harvest: Gopher tortoises used to be such a popular dish that they were called "Florida chickens." Florida prohibited the harvest of gopher tortoises south ofLake Okeechobee in 1985 and statewide in 1988.

Incidental take: Until 2007, FWC issued incidental take permits, which allowed developers to bury gopher tortoise burrows and gopher tortoises during construction. Now, developers must relocate gopher tortoises whose burrows would be covered.

Upper respiratory tract disease (URTD), which attacks a gopher tortoise's sinuses and destroys its sense of smell. Loss of smell interferes with the tortoise's ability to find food, so the animal can starve. A damaged respiratory tract can lead to fatal secondary infections.

"There's nothing new with URTD," Burr said. "Research is still going on. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was widespread, but we're not seeing any die-offs, which is good."

FWC has mapped primary and secondary gopher tortoise habitat, almost all of which is north of Lake Okeechobee.

"That's where we tend to have high concentrations of gopher tortoises," Burr said. "Primary habitat is high and dry with well drained soils. In secondary habitat the soils are not as well drained, and the digability factor might be lower. That doesn't mean they can't dig. They try to dig everywhere. It all comes down to digability and forage above ground."

A lack of primary and secondary habitats doesn't mean Southwest Florida lacks gopher tortoises.

"There are definitely decent numbers of gopher tortoises in Southwest Florida," Burr said. "They used to occur more in the coastal scrub area, but that habitat tends to get developed first. A lot of them live more inland. We find them a lot on ranches, open green areas and sand dunes in beach areas down there."

With plenty of gopher tortoises in Southwest Florida, Southwest Floridians might as well help the state help the species by getting FWC's gopher tortoise app.

Gopher tortoise facts

Scientific name: Gopherus polyphemus.

Status: Threatened.

Distribution: From South Carolina to Florida and westward through southeastern Louisiana. Gopher tortoises are in all Florida counties.

Habitat: A variety of dry, sandy, well-drained habitats, including beach dunes, scrub and pine flatwoods.

Burrows: Gopher tortoises dig burrows, which average seven feet deep and 15 feet long but can be up to 40 feet long. More than 350 animal species inhabit gopher tortoise burrows, including burrowing owls, Eastern indigo snakes, rabbits, possums, Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, Florida mice, gopher frogs and little gopher tortoise scrab beetle.

Size: Average body length is 10 inches; shell height ranges from 6 to 15 inches; weight averages 9 pounds.

Life span: Age estimates in the wild range from 40 to 60 years; captive gopher tortoises can live more than 100 years.

Reproduction: In Florida, gopher tortoises reach maturity at 10 to 15 years. Mating season is March through October. Clutch size is five to nine eggs.

Diet: Low-growing herbs and grasses, legumes, pine needles and seeds, prickly pear cactus, raspberries, black cherry, gopher apples, mollusk shells and bones of dead animals.

Feeding habits: A gopher tortoises normally feeds within 160 feet of its burrow but sometimes will travel more than 350 feet.

Predators: Snakes, fire ants, hawks, raccoons, opossums, armadillos, skunks, dogs, foxes, feral cats. Formerly humans, but in Florida, the harvest of gopher tortoises was banned in the late 1980s.

Be a citizen scientist

To get the gopher tortoise app, visit: myfwc.com

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