Gopher Tortoise Ecology in Pine Rockland
with Steven Whitfield PhD, Dr. Steven Whitfield is a wildlife biologist and Conservation and Research Specialist at Zoo Miami
The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is the only species of tortoise native to Florida, and is a threatened species within the state. Gopher tortoises were formerly more widespread in Miami-Dade County, but early settlers hunted them for food and dramatically impacted populations. In recent decades and even today, gopher tortoise populations are dramatically impacted by habitat loss from urban development. The Pine Rockland reserve surrounding Zoo Miami supports a population of gopher tortoises - one of the southern-most populations within its range, and a population entirely surrounded by urban environments. Miami is the warmest and most urban part of the range of the gopher tortoises, but all of Florida is warming because of greenhouse gases and many parts of Florida are becoming more developed as the human population expands. Consequently, Miami’s gopher tortoises offer insight into conservation of tortoises of the future.
Our gopher tortoise program at Zoo Miami is focused on the biology and conservation of gopher tortoises in Miami-Dade County, and is focused on education of zoo guests about the biology and conservation of tortoises.
Gopher Tortoise Environmental Education
Thanks to a grant from the Gopher Tortoise Council’s Donna Heinrich Environmental Education Fund, Dr. Steven Whitfield teamed up with Zoo Miami Foundation’s Conservation Teen Scientist program to help train high school students to serve as advocates for tortoise conservation. Students learned about gopher tortoises and went to the field with Dr. Whitfield to get first-hand experience working with the tortoises. Students then helped teach zoo visitors about tortoises using one of the ambassador tortoises from Zoo Miami’s Critter Connection.
Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a state-wide campaign called Gopher Tortoise Day for tortoise education and outreach, on April 10th of each year. In 2019, Zoo Miami hosted its first Gopher Tortoise Day event - with a crawl-in tortoise burrow for kids, an ambassador tortoise for guests to meet, and educational information for all guests. If you’re interested in getting involved with Gopher Tortoise Day or hosting your own tortoise event, please check here.
see a tortoise? report it!
Have you seen a gopher tortoise or its burrow? You can help the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by going to their website! Snap a pic and report sightings online here.
Have you seen one of our research tortoises? They are occasionally displaced by people and need to find their way back to their burrows. If you’ve seen a tortoise in Miami-Dade County that’s wearing some tech like a radio transmitter or has numbers painted on its shell with non-toxic paint, please call the Zoo at 305-251-0400.
For media coverage of this program, check out these links:
FAU University Press Feb 19, 2019
Herpetological Review Feb 2018
National Geographic Apr 10, 2017