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Zoo Grant Raises Awareness About Gopher Tortoises

Dr. Phil Darby

A partnership between Gulf Breeze Zoo and UWF Biology Department aims to protect and raise awareness about the federally threatened gopher tortoise.

Earlier this month, the zoo announced a $5,000 grant was awarded to UWF to focus on monitoring and collecting data on gopher tortoises through cameras, surveying habitats, creating educational materials and supporting UWF biologists to attend Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) workshops.

“This is a cool experience to help teach students and save animals, said Katy Massey, corporate conservation coordinator at Gulf Breeze Zoo. “In this area, it’s common for people to pick up gopher tortoises and put them in the water. Being in a coastal community, we want to teach tourists and locals the difference between sea turtles and tortoises.”

The gopher tortoise is a land animal and cannot swim.  According to the FWC website, they can be found in habitats such as longleaf pine sandhills, dry prairies, and coastal dunes. Since 2007, the gopher tortoise was named on the threatened species list by FWC. The primary threat for the species is loss of habitat, particularly from urbanization and development.

This is the first partnership of its kind between the university and the zoo. Dr. Phil Darby, UWF biology professor, said it will help expand on the research biology and earth and environmental sciences students have been working on.

“We have known for quite a long time that gopher tortoises existed on campus, but no one had ever done a full-scale study or otherwise collected data,” Darby explained in an email.  “We assembled a team of students from biology and earth and environmental sciences to survey the campus for gopher tortoises, and in short order found 30 active burrows on UWF property.  Gopher tortoises are considered a 'keystone' species because the burrows they create are occupied by many different species.  Over 300 different species of animals, from insects to snakes to burrowing owls have been documented to occupy these burrows.”

Several students have earned directed study credits through the field work, said Darby, as well as reading the scientific literature, learning technical skills related to mapping, and habitat assessment. Students will also have the opportunity for hands-on experience with summer internship programs at the zoo and creating graphics to teach guests the differences between a turtle and a tortoise. 

Credit Gulf Breeze Zoo
University representatives visit the Gulf Breeze Zoo and meet another threatened species, the Galapagos tortoise.

“We’re hoping to plant the seed of compassion for people and help them to look more closely at the wildlife in their own backyard,” said Massey.

Having a collaboration with organizations outside of the university allows students to broaden their studies, as well as get a close-up view on the work that surrounds conservation efforts.

“Students get to see how different stakeholders concerned with this species go about management and policy decisions to support conservation,” said Darby. “There is a network of biologists working for federal, state and nonprofit organizations devoted to collecting data and educating the public on this species.  Our goal is to collect data to inform regional natural resources organizations on the status of this keystone species.  The funding from the Gulf Breeze Zoo helps draw attention to this tortoise and how important it is to regional upland ecosystems.”

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.