AIKEN, Sc. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Tuesday was a special day for gopher tortoises in Aiken County, considered to be a keystone species of longleaf pine forests. They are an endangered species in parts of the country. A group of hatchlings, juveniles, and adults were released into their natural habitat at the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve near Wagner, SC.
A group of scientists have been working on rebuilding a wild population at the site since 2006. The goal is to eventually have a population of 250 adult tortoises at the preserve. 250 was determined to be the minimum number needed to have a self-sustaining population at the preserve in Aiken County.
Some of the research being conducted is to see which age group of tortoise released has the better chance of survival. Researches are also looking into if movement is also a factor of survival. They compare where the location of an established tortoise is to where it was released.
Many of the tortoises that are being relocated in Aiken County, which is the most northern stretch of the gopher tortoise range, are brought from other states where there is nowhere for them to live. This is a good thing for the preserve. Greater genetic diversity is being achieved than there could be otherwise.
The natural habitat for gopher tortoises is a longleaf pine savannah. This is what the US Dept. of Forestry, SC DNR, and UGA Savannah River Ecology Lab are working to restore at the preserve. They are doing this through prescribed burns and by mechanical means of thinning out unneeded vegetation. When the land for the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve was first identified in the mid-1990s, it consisted of a mix of longleaf pine and scrub oak trees. That landscape is not good for gopher tortoises.
In the longleaf savannah landscape there is mostly a mix of southern pine and wiregrass where gopher tortoises are able to dig their burrows. The burrows the tortoises create serve as shelter and protections for their eggs. One of the reasons that the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species in the longleaf savannah is that the burrows also serve as a refuge for other animals. Tortoise burrows are sometimes about 20-25 feet long and as much as 10 feet deep in the ground.
Many of the tortoises released at the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve are hatched by Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia and the UGA Savannah River Ecology Lab located in Aiken. A lot of the eggs are collected from the preserve.