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Conservation Pulse - Episode 2 at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

Welcome to our second edition of Conservation Pulse - an exciting glimpse into some conservation efforts from other organizations! This time we visited the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (The GTM Research Reserve) in northeast Florida. The GTM Research Reserve is part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS), a network of 30 reserves across the country, and represents 76,760 acres of pristine estuarine habitat between the Guana, Tolomato and Matanzas rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. It's a collaboration between the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The estuary, maritime forests, and undeveloped coastal habitats that make up the reserve are home to an incredible number of varied wildlife and plant species, and the GTM Research Reserve is committed to conserving its natural biodiversity and cultural resources using science.

The GTM Research Reserve is located in a beautiful setting nestled into miles of undeveloped coastline and filled with life everywhere. Driving along A1A I saw pelicans taking flight over the sea, osprey diving for fish, and turkey vultures circling overhead. I walked into their massive, 21,000 square foot Visitor Center which includes interpretive exhibits, aquariums, classroom spaces, teaching and working laboratories, an auditorium and an outdoor amphitheater overlooking the Guana River Aquatic Preserve.

I was enthusiastically greeted by Patrician Price, the Regional Communication Coordinator who filled me in on some of the conservation initiatives that the GTM Research Reserve is involved in. Some of their ongoing research projects include water quality and weather monitoring, vegetation sampling, oyster restoration, and land management efforts.

Next, I spoke to Candace Killian, the Resource Management Coordinator who talked to me about their gopher tortoise monitoring program. The gopher tortoise is a critically important ecological engineer and keystone species whose burrows provide vital habitat and refuge to over 400 different animals in their ecosystem. Without the gopher tortoise, those animals who depend on them may decline in population or even cease to exist.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has identified five priority commensals, or animals who live alongside the gopher tortoise in their burrows. These priority commensals are the state-threatened Florida pine snake, the federally-threatened eastern indigo snake, the Florida mouse, the gopher frog, and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Candace explained that scientists can use the information from their ongoing gopher tortoise surveys as an indicator of the biodiversity and overall ecosystem health, and also to inform the broader conservation and land management programs at the GTM Research Reserve.

After speaking with Candace I walked through the winding trails covered in spanish moss and listened to the sound of tree frogs calling all around me. In the distance, I could also hear a barred owl. The trails took me through maritime hammock, pine flatwoods, and freshwater marsh systems where I could see a small alligator from the bridge I stood on.

Finally, I visited the untouched beach which was littered with seashells, shark teeth, and other low-tide treasures. The boardwalks took me over dune systems where I could see the gopher tortoise burrows that Candace told me about, along with countless wildflowers!

We can't wait to learn more about the species found at the GTM Research Reserve and follow the progress of their long-term conservation efforts. We hope you'll enjoy this episode and visit the reserve soon!

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