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Sandhills inventory documents unique habitat, rare species
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SOCIAL CIRCLE — A survey of an unusual Coastal Plain habitat in Georgia will provide new information about rare species such as the gopher tortoise, Georgia’s state reptile.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division began the sandhills inventory in 2006 to assess the conservation needs of rare plants and animals in these areas, and hopefully preserve and restore the biological integrity of one of the state’s most bio-diverse habitats. The project is scheduled for completion by early 2009.
Sandhill environments are areas of deep sandy soils that generally feature a mix of longleaf pine and scrub oak species, especially turkey oak, in a low, open-tree canopy with drought-tolerant shrubs, grasses and cactus along the ground.  
The data collected will provide a reference for future research. The inventory includes soil conditions, location and population estimates of rare or keystone species, and groupings of plant species.
One example is the gopher tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species in Georgia and protected by state law. The species has experienced a high rate of decline because of habitat loss, disease and the illegal collection of the tortoises for food. Capable of living up to 60 years, the tortoise has evolved to survive in the sometimes-harsh sandhills environment.
Habitat suitable for gopher tortoises must have well-drained sandy soils for digging burrows, herbaceous food plants, and open sunny areas for nesting and basking. Periodic natural fires play an important role in maintaining tortoise habitat by opening up the canopy and promoting the growth of plants the animals eat. The sandhills inventory will help biologists preserve this kind of habitat.
Other protected species found in sandhills habitat include the endangered indigo snake, the pocket gopher, mole skink, sandhills golden aster, sandhills rosemary and Bachman’s sparrow. Many of the animals have adapted to the sandy soil and exacting climate by creating or retreating to burrows in the ground. Similarly, many sandhills plants can tolerate low moisture and nutrient levels, and are not found in other types of habitats.
The vegetation of sandhills can vary depending on factors such as the depth of the sandy soil and the area’s fire history and topography. In some places, sandhills may have stands of longleaf pine and wiregrass groundcover; in others, a mix of scrubby oaks whose dwarfed height belies their old age.
Survey plots for the sandhills project are scattered throughout the Coastal Plain. Some concentrations are along the Fall Line - a geological boundary that cuts across the state from Columbus to Augusta - and adjacent to rivers such as the Alapaha, Ohoopee and Altamaha.
More than 100 plots have been checked using a combination of geographic information system and on-the-ground research. The GIS review involves examining aerial photographs and soil maps for characteristics indicative of intact sandhills habitat and then verifying the information through detailed inventories of the vegetation in 20-by-20-meter plots, as well as broader searches for plant species and counts of gopher tortoise burrows.  
Many of the survey plots are on private property. The cooperation of private landowners has been key.
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