Gopher Tortoise Burrow Use, Home Range, Seasonality, and Habitat


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Gopher Tortoise Burrow Use, Home Range, Seasonality, and Habitat Fidelity in Scrub and Mesic Flatwoods of Southern Florida

Traci D. Castellón1,3,4, Betsie B. Rothermel1 and Javan M. Bauder2
3 Present Address: Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Gainesville, FL 32601, USA
4 Correspondence: e-mail, [email protected]
Associate Editor: Pilar Santidrián Tomillo
1 Archbold Biological Station, Venus, FL 33960, USA
2 Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003, USA

Vol. 74: , Issue. 1, : Pages. 8-21
(Issue publication date: March 2018)

In southern Florida, USA, Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) primarily occupy habitats that are considered suboptimal or unsuitable in other parts of the range. The dominant habitat is mesic flatwoods, which has abundant forage but has high water tables that might hinder burrowing and nesting. In contrast, Florida scrub assemblages on inland ridges have suitable soils but scarce forage. We used radio telemetry to monitor 22 male and 23 female Gopher Tortoises in mesic flatwoods and scrub habitats of southern Florida. Compared to mesic flatwoods, we predicted larger home ranges and more frequent movement among burrows in scrub because of the scarcity of forage, and we predicted possible shifts in home ranges (e.g., from wetter to drier habitats) in response to seasonal rainfall. We found that home ranges in our study area were larger than is typical for higher-quality habitats (e.g., sandhill) in other parts of the range, but we observed little movement between habitats. Male home ranges and burrow use patterns were similar in flatwoods and scrub, with males making frequent excursions to court females. Females in scrub were sedentary, contradicting our prediction of frequent movement attributable to scarce forage, and we did not observe feeding forays by either sex to adjacent food-rich habitats. Compared to females in scrub, females in flatwoods had larger home ranges, used more burrows, and moved more frequently among them. High levels of movement in flatwoods might have been influenced by the high water table and frequent burrow flooding. Nonetheless, we saw no evidence of large-scale shifts to drier habitats for nesting or during peak rains. Further research is needed to investigate mechanisms that enable persistence of Gopher Tortoises under apparently suboptimal conditions.