Hundreds of species in the southeastern United States rely on tortoise burrows to make their homes. Alligators, however, are not usually included on this list.
That’s why biologists at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources were so surprised when they peered into a gopher tortoise burrow in Tattnall county on Wednesday, only to find a 4.5-foot gator “smiling” back at them.
“Gators often winter in dens or holes along waterways,” the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said in a Facebook post. “But the burrow is farther than eight football fields from a significant water source. In between is rugged, fire-suppressed sandhills scrub, as well as other tortoise burrows, so why does this gator travel so far to use this hole?”
The department’s biologists have found alligators in this same burrow two years in a row, and once in a nearby burrow in 2021. They suspect that it is the same gator each time, although they cannot be sure.
Gopher tortoises are Georgia’s official state reptile. It is the only tortoise species in the U.S. that is naturally found east of the Mississippi River, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission, and its range stretches from southeastern Louisiana through to the southern part of South Carolina.
The species play several important roles in their surrounding ecosystems, which is why they are often referred to as a “keystone species.” In other words, removing gopher tortoises from their natural habitat would have a disproportionately large effect on their surrounding ecosystem, relative to their population size. One of their most important services is digging their burrows.
According to the University of Georgia, gopher tortoise burrows can measure up to 40 feet long and 10 feet deep. To build these, they require areas with well-drained, sandy soil and use their paddle-like front legs as shovels.
Over 350 species rely on these burrows for shelter, including snakes, frogs, owls and mice. Even alligators have been known to use tortoise burrows at least twice before in Georgia, but in both cases, the hole was near an area of wetland, and the alligators were not seen going back to the same holes year after year. That is why the present case is so unusual.
“Our biologists speculate there’s memory involved,” the wildlife division said. “The alligator can’t be following last year’s scent trail, so we can only assume it’s remembering that’s the place to go.”
The biologists have set up a game camera to document the activity of the gator.
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