Rare Animal Research at Camp Shelby
The Camp Shelby Conservation Program provides information for the Mississippi Army National Guard.
Eastern Coachwhip Snakes
Rare Eastern coachwhip snakes that The Nature Conservancy researches at Camp Shelby.
By Jay Harrod
Catching a glimpse of an adult gopher tortoise is rare. Not only are the animals listed as threatened in Mississippi under the Endangered Species Act, they’re skittish, don’t stray far from their burrows and are faster than one would think.
But Matt Hinderliter, a gopher tortoise biologist who works for The Nature Conservancy in Mississippi, is an expert when it comes to tracking them.
As he approaches a burrow he whispers, “This adult sometimes hangs out just inside its burrow. I’ll try to grab him before he goes too deep.” He kneels down, peers inside the burrow (the creatures have poor eyesight) and plunges towards the football-sized hole, burying his arm to his shoulder.
“I’ve got it,” he grunts as he struggles to pull the 10-pound tortoise from its hole. (See video tab above.)
Gopher tortoises, which can live as long as 80 years, are incredibly strong and made for digging – or in this case digging in. When Matt pulls the tortoise from the hole a few minutes later, he examines it and guesses it to be 30-40 years old. It’s a rugged, prehistoric looking creature. The only predator capable of eating it, Matt says, might be a coyote.
Giving Tortoises a Head Start
Back at The Nature Conservancy’s office at Camp Shelby, a 134,000-acre Army National Guard training facility near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Matt has a small pool filled with sand and 44 gopher tortoise hatchlings. Within the previous two weeks the tortoises hatched from 68 eggs Matt collected.
About two inches in diameter with orangish-yellow and black shells, they’re cute – and apparently tasty to a wide range of predators. “Coyotes, raccoons, snakes, owls, fire ants. They’re all known to eat gopher tortoise hatchlings,” Matt says.
From 2000 to 2001, the Conservancy attached radio transmitters to about 45 hatchlings at Camp Shelby and tracked them weekly. Within two years, all had died, mostly due to predation. At the same time, adult tortoises at Camp Shelby were doing okay. But why weren’t the juveniles surviving? That was the nagging question behind the Conservancy’s ensuing research at Camp Shelby.
In 2006, Conservancy staff began collecting gopher tortoise eggs about 60 days after they were laid. The researchers place the eggs in incubators until they hatch about 30 days later, usually in late August or early September. Once hatched, the tortoises remain in the lab, where they’re fed clover, kale and lettuce for about two weeks before being moved to a “head-start pen.” The half-acre pen is surrounded by a six-foot high chain link fence covered with netting above and metal screens below to protect the animals from predation.
Since 2007, the Conservancy has released 55 gopher tortoises from the head start pen, ranging from hatchlings to 3-year-olds. Matt and his staff track the tortoises twice weekly using radio telemetry in an effort to determine not only causes of mortality, but also what kind of habitat they prefer and whether there’s an age at which they stand a better chance of survival.
Of the 55 tortoises released since 2007, Matt still tracks 13. Most of the others have fallen victim to predation.
A Hotspot for Rare Plants and Animals
Located within the Pascagoula River watershed and home to rare plant communities, Camp Shelby is a special place. The Camp – a large portion of which includes land leased from the DeSoto National Forest – harbors more than 80 plant species listed on the Mississippi Heritage Program’s tracking list. Over 20 orchids grow here. In 2006, a Conservancy botanist discovered a shrub species previously unknown to science – the big leaf witch hazel.
Plants aren’t the only fascinating finds at Camp Shelby. In addition to the gopher tortoise, since 2004 the Conservancy has tracked two species of concern in Mississippi – the Eastern coachwhip snake (view a video in the video tab above) and the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. It has also tracked one species listed by the state as endangered, the black pinesnake. The Conservancy also monitors populations of, and habitat preferred by, the Camp Shelby burrowing crayfish, an animal found among pitcher plant wetlands at Camp Shelby and nowhere else.
As with the tortoises, the Conservancy gathers information about these species that helps the Army and the U.S. Forest Service develop land management plans. Camp Shelby is home to longleaf pine forests, which once covered some 90 million acres stretching from Virginia to Texas. Today, less than 5 percent remains. Outside of clear cutting for development or agriculture, fire suppression threatens longleaf pine forests more than anything else. Without the naturally-occurring cycles of fire that were present before modern settlement of the region, trees can become too dense and woody shrubs encroach, shading out plants on the ground that provide food for a variety of species, including deer, turkey and quail.
Not surprisingly, all the species the Conservancy monitors also benefit from open woodlands maintained by prescribed fire… as do soldiers. Thick overgrown forests aren’t conducive to military maneuvers, and prescribed fire also consumes fuel, reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
A Biologists Work Is Never Done
This fall, Matt released 45 additional gopher tortoises he’ll track at Camp Shelby. Walking through the open woods there, one can see fire scars on the healthy longleaf pines. Grass grows on the forest floor.
“It’s these small plants that the tortoises eat,” Matt says. “With a little luck, maybe we’ll be tracking these guys 10 years from now.