Florida Aims to Protect Gopher Tortoises with App

By on April 8th, 2014
A Florida gopher tortoise in its natural habitat. A new app by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will receive geographic locations of the threatened species through user-generated images.

Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A Florida gopher tortoise in its natural habitat. A new app by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will receive geographic locations of the threatened species through user-generated images.

Threatened animal species protection — there’s an app for that.

The free “Florida Gopher Tortoise” App allows the public to submit photos with GPS coordinates of tortoises or their burrows to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC. The app will help scientists gather data on the locations of tortoises in the state.

Allie Perryman, local government coordinator for the FWC, said the idea originated as a way to get Florida residents and visitors involved in tortoise conservation.

“As the photos are submitted to us, they go into a database,” Perryman said. “Our plan is to have a map on our website where anybody can pull up the map and zoom into their neighborhood or any area they want to look at and find out if there were any tortoise sightings.”

The app has been downloaded on about 700 smartphones since the March 12 announcement, Perryman said. It includes quizzes and educational information about gopher tortoises.

The FWC is trying to protect the species and make others aware because there has been a decrease in tortoise populations due to a loss in habitat, slowness to reach sexual maturity and longer life spans. Predation on nests and hatchlings is also a risk, according to the FWC Gopher Tortoise Management Plan from September 2012.

Samantha Dupree, FWC gopher tortoise conservation biologist, said although the tortoises are found throughout Florida, they are more densely populated in the North Central and Central Florida regions compared to the Panhandle or South Florida.

About 785,000 gopher tortoises are found in Florida, according to the most recent FWC biological status report in 2006. Biological status reports are only done when evaluating a petition to list or delist a species.

“The gopher tortoise population can be very difficult to estimate because a single tortoise can have multiple burrows,” Perryman said. Since not all suitable habitats are occupied by tortoises and not all mature adult tortoises reproduce, she said the number of tortoises may actually be lower.

With the help of the Florida Gopher Tortoise app, the FWC is hoping to fill the data gap for the number of gopher tortoises not counted by its staff.

This is the first time the FWC has created an app to contribute to citizen science. The FWC researched the Mojave Desert Tortoise app before creating their own. The Mojave Desert Tortoise app also records the location of user-uploaded images and sends the results to researchers.

Kathy Russell, general curator for the Zoo Animal Technology Program at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, said its staff tags injured gopher tortoises and later transfers them to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. After receiving necessary treatment, the tortoises rehabilitate at the zoo until they are ready to be released back into their natural environment.

Dr. Jim Wellehan, from the Zoological Medicine Service at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, said the vast majority of gopher tortoises they receive are victims of dog attacks or were hit by cars.

Some of the treatments the tortoises receive before rehabilitating at the zoo include negative-pressure wound therapy, a vacuum-assisted closure technique that helps heal significant wounds. Other treatments the tortoises receive include other wound care techniques and shell repair techniques.

Russell said the zoo takes care of about 15 to 30 injured gopher tortoises a year, and most of the rehabilitation occurs during the summer months.

Russell believes the app is a step in the right direction.

“I think that’s the only way they’ll get data — and it’s reliable data,” she said.

The FWC encourages those who find injured tortoises to report sightings to their wildlife alert hotline.

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