FORT STEWART, GA -- Did you know that Georgia has a State Reptile' Well, we do - it's the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), and though we share this installation with hundreds of these lovable creatures, their population is declining in many areas across the state due to habitat loss. This is the only tortoise found east of the Mississippi River, and can live for over 50 years.

The gopher tortoise is listed as "threatened" by the state of Georgia but is not federally protected in Georgia at this time.

In preparation for construction to begin on the Digital Multi-Purpose Range Complex, Directorate of Public Works Fish and Wildlife personnel trapped a number of tortoises whose burrows were in danger of being destroyed, and relocated them to other suitable locations on the installation.

Great care was taken to ensure the safety of each tortoise, and information that was gathered from the tortoises will aid in our understanding of how we might best preserve this species that is so important to the sand hill ecosystem.
Many of the individuals that were relocated also received a passive integrated transponder, so that they can be identified if captured again.

Gopher tortoises prefer to live in the sandy regions scattered around Fort Stewart, which makes it easier to construct their homes - underground burrows that may be up to 40 feet long and 10 feet deep. These unique burrows earn the tortoise the title of Keystone Species, a species that has a major influence on the structure of the ecosystem, contributing to the diversity of the plant and animal species found there to the point that if that species were to become extinct, many other species would ultimately become extinct as well. Gopher tortoise burrows serve as homes and temporary refuges from temperature extremes for more than 300 animal species, many of which are imperiled themselves.

What is the difference between a tortoise, a turtle, and a terrapin' They are all reptiles in the order chelonia, but there is actually no distinguishing characteristic that can be used to separate the three. Instead, these terms generally separate species based on preferred habitats used by each, and to a lesser extent, their diets. Tortoises live primarily on land, and generally vegetation makes up the bulk of their diet. Most turtles are aquatic, or semi-aquatic, and generally eat meat, or a varied meat and vegetable diet. Terrapins are found both on land and in fresh and brackish water. To further distinguish tortoises, they do not have webbed feet, as do many turtles, and tortoises generally have longer life spans.

So, next time you see a gopher tortoise laboriously making its way across a road, why not stop and help' That tortoise may be older than you or me. If you see a gopher tortoise burrow, take the time to consider how many animal species depend on that burrow for protection and refuge, and try not to walk or drive over it. It could collapse.

Most importantly, remember how important these reptiles are to their ecosystem, and do your part to protect them. By practicing common sense conservation today, we can help avoid the need to put the gopher tortoise on the "endangered species" list in the future.