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Survey Reveals Loss of Gopher Tortoise Burrows from Hurricane Ian on Sanibel

Gopher tortoise.jpg
Posted at 2:41 PM, Jan 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-02 18:44:45-05

SANIBEL, Fla. — Hurricane Ian devastated many neighborhoods and business on Sanibel, but also impacted some of Florida’s most vulnerable animal species including the gopher tortoise. The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation annually surveys their properties for tortoise burrows to help access the health of the species. If a tortoise burrow is found, SCCF assesses it as active, inactive or abandoned depending on its current state.

During their recent survey, SCCF discovered areas such as Dayton Preserve which 21 active and two inactive burrows in 2021 to no long have any remaining active or inactive burrows post hurricane. This preserve, on Tarpon Bay Road and West Gulf Drive, is very close to the beach with little high elevation compared other areas on Sanibel. The areas near West Gulf, Middle Gulf, and East Gulf Drives took some of the worst storm surge damage on the Island. However, Walker and Wulfert Gopher Tortoise Preserve, on the west end of the island, saw very similar counts as 2021. SCCF says this likely due to slightly higher elevation of that area. And while some the tortoises may have lost their burrows, SCCF Wildlife and Habitat Management Director Chris Lechowicz says this doesn’t mean they didn’t not survive the storm.

“Gopher Tortoises arrived to Sanibel by floating there originally. Even though they are land species, they can survive in the water for a short period of time. It is not uncommon for tortoises to find their ways to place by floating or swimming from one place to another,” says Lechowicz.

Lechowcz adds that storm opened up more potential habitat on the island which could result in some tortoise and other wildlife to seek out more optimal areas on the island to burrow and set up new home ranges. He believes that tortoises that lost their burrows at the Dayton Preserve will likely move back there in the next year or so.