An Overview of the St. Catherine’s Island Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) Relocation and Research Project, 1994–2015
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2015
Terry M. Norton1,2,3, DVM, DACZM; Tracey Tuberville4, PhD; Bonnie Raphael5, DVM, DACZM; Jeffrey Spratt3, MS
1Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Jekyll Island Authority, Jekyll Island, GA, USA; 2St. Catherine’s Island Foundation, Midway, GA, USA; 3St. Catherine’s Island Wildlife Survival Center, Midway, GA, USA; 4Savannah River Ecology Lab, Aiken, SC, USA; 5Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY,USA
St. Catherine’s Island (SCI) is a privately owned barrier island off the coast of Georgia. A population of 74 (23 males, 32 females, and 19 immature) gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) was translocated from a development site in Bulloch County, Georgia to SCI in 1994. Approximately 25–30 free-ranging tortoises had been released from 1987 to 1993 and, consequently, were already present when founders from Bulloch County, Georgia, were released on the island. The primary habitat utilized by the tortoises is a 162-hectare pasture at the north end of the island that was created for cattle grazing in 1950 and planted with several types of grasses. Although grazing by cattle has been discontinued since 1982, the open habitat is maintained primarily by mowing and occasional burning, resulting in savanna-like grassland with a scarce over-story of longleaf, slash, and loblolly pines. Bi-annual trapping was conducted each fall and spring from 1994 to 1998. Annual spring sampling resumed in 2001 and continued into 2013. Several waif and/or rehabbed tortoises have been released on the island after receiving a thorough physical examination and diagnostic workup. The population has been monitored long-term for health, disease, reproduction, genetics, spatial ecology, and nutrition. Additionally, a large number of research and training opportunities for graduate and veterinary students have been provided through this effort. Several peer-reviewed manuscripts have been published from this long-term project. A head-start program from eggs collected from nests from this population to supplement other sites in Georgia has been recently established.
The authors thank the many individuals and organizations that have assisted with this project over the years. In particular, we thank Royce Hayes and John Behler (deceased).