When visiting some of the 153,000-plus acres of protected land in Alabama and Georgia, program directors for Alabama Land Trust and Georgia Land Trust are reminded often of the wildlife and special critters who live in the hills, valleys, field, streams and woods of conservation easements.

Marc Hudson, program director for Southwest Georgia for the Georgia Land Trust, took these pictures of two critters he came across during recent field work in the Chattahoochee River Valley area.

First, this gopher tortoise is a protected species and one which is known for digging large burrows in its dry habitat.

The gopher tortoise (gopherus polyphemus) belongs to a group of land tortoises that originated in North America million of years ago, thus making it one of the the most successful taxonomies.

Gopher tortoise

The gopher tortoises can be found throughout the state of Florida and southern areas of Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and the tip of Eastern Louisiana. They dig their burrows in dry habitats. The gopher tortoise grows on average to be about slightly less than one foot long and weighs about 29 pounds, though they have been found to be as big as 16 inches.

The gopher tortoise is an obligate burrower with many adaptations for digging. The limbs are very stout and strong, with wide flat claws. The front legs are protected with small scales. The shell of the tortoise (and all turtles) is an outgrowth of the skeleton and is their major means of protection. When the tortoise pulls his head completely into the shell and covers the openings with his limbs, there are very few predators, other than humans, that can harm him.

Each tortoise will dig and use several burrows within its home range. In east-central Florida studies, males used an average of 17 burrows, but some males only used eight burrows and some males used as many as 35 burrows. Generally, females don’t use as many burrows as males. They averaged nine burrows, but used as few as three burrows or as many as 17. In the winter, both males and females maintain a smaller home range and use fewer burrows. Some burrows are visited at different times by several different tortoises. Sometimes, more than one tortoise will be in a burrow at the same time.

Gopher tortoises are often called wildlife landlords because their burrows are essential to the lives and well-being of many other wildlife species. These animals that take advantage of the tortoise’s burrow, but neither help nor harm the tortoise, are called commensals. Commensals benefit from the protection of the burrow, but the burrow may also provide a smorgasbord for any predator that ventures into it. Over 300 species of invertebrates have been documented using tortoise burrows.

Vertebrate commensals include frogs, other turtles, juvenile tortoises, poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, many small mammals, and even some birds such as the Florida scrub-jay and burrowing owl. Several of the commensals are legally protected species, which adds to the tremendous value that the tortoise burrow has in the ecosystem.

Many Alabama Land Trust and Georgia Land Trust-managed conservation easements include habitat for gopher tortoises, making the gopher tortoise one of the protected species that find haven on land protected by conservation easements.

Timber rattler
This timber rattler, stretched out in the sun in a clearing in the woods, is one reptile that demands respect from anyone who comes across this snake in the woods and trails.
Timber rattler

Crotalus horridus is a species of venomous pitviper found in the eastern United States and is the only rattlesnake species found in most of the populous northeastern U.S.

Timber rattlesnakes are generally found in deciduous forests in rugged terrain. In the summer, gravid (pregnant) females seem to prefer open, rocky ledges where temperatures are higher, while the males and non-gravid females seem to prefer cooler, thicker woods where the forest canopy is more closed. Rattlers generally migrate from 1.3 to 2.5 miles (2 to 4 km) from their den each summer, with a maximum movement of 4.5 miles (7.2 km) observed.