SES students learn about ‘gophers’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Monday was Gopher Tortoise Day and fourth graders at Straughn Elementary School got to learn more about the species of tortoise and its habitat.

The Gopher Tortoise Council has designated April 10 the special day.

The program at SES was delivered by Covington County Soil and Water Conservation District Education Specialist Suzi Mersmann and local herpetologists Jimmy and Sierra Stiles.

Students had the opportunity to crawl through a mock gopher tortoise burrow to see the commensal species that live in and depend on gopher tortoise burrows.

“Not everyone gets to celebrate Gopher Tortoise Day,” Mersmann said. “The gopher tortoise only lives in the Southeastern United States in habitats with sandy soil.”

Students learned about cold-blooded animals and that their body temperatures were regulated externally rather than internally.

Mersmann had four vocabulary words for the students to learn.

The first was keystone species.

Stiles described those species as being at the top of the arch, meaning they provide something to lots of other animals.

In this case, the gopher tortoise burrow provides housing for many different species.

Those species include the Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake, indigo snake, gopher frogs, beetles, gopher crickets, mice, scorpions and more.

Mersmann said that 360 species have been identified as using gopher tortoise burrows.

She also taught them the word about commensal species.

They are species that live in the gopher tortoise burrows.

Then they learned about native species and that they are species that live in a certain area without being placed.

They also learned about fire-maintained habitats. The Conecuh National Forest, which is rich in long-leaf pines, is fire-maintained.

Mersmann said that the gopher tortoise is the only southeast tortoise east of the Mississippi River.

Gopher tortoises are a protected species throughout their habitat range.

They are federally protected west of the Mobile River, and the biggest threat to them is loss of habitat.