A gator walked into a burrow. …
Well, this actually isn’t a joke. And the fact that an alligator did walk, or squeeze, into a Tattnall County gopher tortoise burrow for three winters in a row and over 800 yards from the nearest wetland makes it more fascinating than funny, according to DNR wildlife technician Matt Moore.
“This gator is traveling long distances just to spend the winter in a tortoise burrow each year,” Moore said.
Gopher tortoises are a keystone species mainly because the long, deep burrows they dig also benefit about 350 other animals. American alligators aren’t usually on that list. But the past three winters while surveying for rare eastern indigo snakes on private land in Tattnall, Moore and fellow technician Andy Day have discovered a gator in a tortoise burrow.
As Moore said, showing a talent for understatement, “When we get on our belly to look down a gopher tortoise hole, to see a 4-and-a-half foot alligator’s big smiling face looking back at you is a surprise.”
The surprise greeted them at the same burrow the last two years and at a nearby one in 2021. Moore and Day think it's probably the same gator. They set up a camera to document the use this year and even walked up on the gator sunning by the burrow.
The big reptile didn’t dive for the hole, and even seemed reluctant to go in, Moore said. “That made us think he kind of slides (in) backward.” Makes sense: For an animal almost 5 feet long, turning around in a tortoise tunnel could be trouble.
What’s puzzling is why this alligator travels so far to use this refuge. Gators often winter in dens or holes along waterways. But the burrow is farther than eight football fields from a significant water source. In between is rugged, fire-suppressed sandhills scrub, plus other tortoise burrows that are closer, Moore said.
“There must be some level of memory involved. He can’t be following (last year's) scent trail. I can only assume he’s remembering that’s the place to go.”
Alligators have been spotted in gopher burrows at least twice before in Georgia (Day found one of them). Yet both were near wetlands. And neither involved a burrow used multiple years.
Moore took detailed photos of the alligator last month to help identify the animal if it’s spotted again. He also plans to check the tortoise burrow this summer to see if gophers are crawling in when the gator is gone.
“It’s still a work in progress in certain respects to fully understand what’s going on with this burrow.”
Or with this gator. “We want to see how long this goes on," Moore added. "Eventually he’s going to outgrow the burrow.”