Deep in the sandhills of the Brooksville ridge, the summer rains are finally beginning to fall at the The Rattlesnake Conservancy after a tough year of drought. Many of the amphibians are beginning to call again in anticipation of further rains. Though, not everyone has been so lucky. Throughout last year, we found many juvenile reptiles, amphibians, and lizards, that had succumbed to drought conditions before the summer rains began. Even many annual flowering species of plant on the ridge missed their window to bloom and some did not bloom at all. We have also seen a notable decrease in the number and diversity of pollinator species, likely as a result of the decreased production of flowering plants. Extreme conditions such as these may set back many species an entire generation from lack of food and water.
Wildfires throughout the last few months have been a concern, including one wildfire that sprang up right next to the conservancy. While fire is important for our ecosystems, major wildfires in drought conditions can be devastating to local wildlife. It is important that we continue to manage the conservancy with prescribed fire when conditions are more favorable to ensure that fuel loads, or the amount of flammable materials, are minimal to reduce the chance of catastrophic wildfires.
This past year, we partnered with our friends and partners at Ashton Biological Preserve, to survey the conservancy for gopher tortoises. Gopher tortoises are an important keystone species and the folks at ABP are committed to their protection. Because gopher tortoise burrows provide shelter for many species, we too do everything we can to conserve the species at the conservancy. Often times, we find rattlesnakes, eastern indigo snakes, and many other species utilizing the burrows when we use "burrow scopes" to look inside or when we use wildlife cameras.
Additional monitoring that we perform in partnership with ABP are using wildlife cameras to capture photos of the various species which utilize gopher tortoise burrows. We are also interested to understand how often snakes or lizards choose to use abandoned burrows versus active burrows. Anecdotally, we have seen other species prefer the abandoned burrows, likely due to less disturbance from tortoises entering and exiting the burrow.
One of the camera traps that was placed in front of a burrow on the ABP detected almost 30 species in just three weeks using a burrow! Some common species we saw were opossums, striped skunks, a bobcat, a Florida mouse, a rabbit, a grey squirrel, gopher tortoises, a gopher frog, a southern toad, a leopard frog, a pine snake, a southern hognose, a race runner (lizard), an eastern fence lizard, 12 different bird species, and a couple of insect species (though there were likely many more the camera did not detect). There is no doubt that gopher tortoise burrows are important parts of the sandhill ecosystem!
The EDCF looks forward to future research studies at the conservancy and with our partners at Ashton Biological Preserve! See their website at ashtonbiodiversity.com