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St. Catherines projects keeps tabs on gopher tortoise
Gopher tortoises at the St. Catherines Island Survival Wildlife Center have given researchers unique opportunities to restore the declining population. - photo by Photo provided.
A group of gopher tortoises at the St. Catherines Island Survival Wildlife Center has given conservationists, educators and veterinary students a unique opportunity to increase the federally protected, threatened species’ population.
Jordan Kirkpatrick is entering her second year in the University of Georgia’s veterinary medicine program. She spent the summer assisting Dr. Terry Norton, director and veterinarian of Jekyll Island’s Georgia Sea Turtle Center, who is studying the island’s tortoise population. Kirkpatrick said the current population started when a group of tortoises was relocated to St. Catherines Island around 1994.
“They did it to save the population,” she said.
Kirkpatrick said most of the tortoises live in the section of the island they call north pasture.
“North pasture used to be for cows when this was an agricultural island, but the area is conducive to [tortoises’] natural habitat with the long leaf pines,” she said. “They are social creatures and will migrate to different burrows.”
Kirkpatrick said she spent June collecting adult tortoises by setting pit fall traps in front of their burrows.
“I go to their burrows and check to make sure there is no nest,” she said. “And if there is no nest, I dig a big hole and put in a five-gallon bucket. The bucket has holes drilled along the bottom and sides to allow rain or excess sand to drain.
She said the pitfall traps are placed in front of the burrows and camouflaged.
“The traps are checked three times a day and immediately after a rainfall,” she said. “When I catch them, I do physical exams on them, check their eyes, nose, ears, legs, etc. … and find out if they have any abnormalities. Usually, it’s just the shell and normally, it’s just worn away. When Dr. Norton is here we will draw blood and submit that for testing. Part of what we are doing is just trying to get an idea about their normal blood values.”
Kirkpatrick said their studies are helping to create a baseline for a complete blood count and defining what is considered a normal blood chemical analysis.
“For a lot of the exotic wildlife, there is not a lot of information on what is considered a normal blood chemical analysis,” she said.
The tests are performed at the island’s veterinary clinic, and Kirkpatrick said they kept 15 of the captured adults at the clinic for St. Catherines annual Envirovet Program the last week of June.
The program brought veterinarians and students from all over the world together to study the tortoises and other island exotics.
Kirkpatrick said the tortoises are assigned a specific number based on marks placed on their shells.
“So they all have an individual ID,” she said. “We keep a log, some of them we have caught every single year so we have a very good log on them. One of them I caught hasn’t been seen in six years so it was nice to see her again and get some information on her.”
Kirkpatrick said she also assisted Tracey Tuberville from the Savannah River Ecology Lab with her research.
“She is doing a genetic study to figure out paternity because the tortoises can have multiple paternities for their clutches,” she said.
In July, the vet student was busy catching juvenile tortoises, “So we can determine survivorship,” she said.
She said they had some hatchlings in 2007 and 2008 and by capturing the younger tortoises, the researchers can analyze how the population is doing and how the young are surviving.
“So far, I’m about 50/50 on re-capturing the ones that have been caught and catching ones that have never been caught,” she said. “And the way we can tell is we put micro-chips in them so we can scan those.”
She said the chips sometimes fall out so they also put notches in their shell.
She said continuing the process will provide valuable information in sustaining the tortoises’ population and health.

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