2023 VetsWork Field Note: Olivia Day

by | Field Notes, VetsWork, VW 2023

The Mississippi heat can be a bit unbearable at times, but getting to help conserve threatened species and work with the individuals I get to work with on a daily basis makes it worth it. During the months of May and June, I got to help multiple agencies within Mississippi and Louisiana go on the hunt for Gopher Tortoise eggs. Gopher Tortoises are a protected species in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida and are federally listed as threatened. These sometimes feisty creatures can be anywhere from 9 to 11 inches, weigh roughly 10 pounds or more, and live anywhere from 40 to 60 years in the wild or even 90 years in captivity.

They get their name due to the fact they burrow into the ground in sandy soils, and these burrows can be up to 40 feet long and 10 feet wide. The females have their nesting season from late April to mid-July and can lay clutches of 2 to 9 eggs; I have seen some clutches in the field that have only one egg or up to 7 eggs. Only about 25% of these eggs will hatch in the wild, and only roughly 10% will survive their first year.

Not only do these low survival rates make it necessary for human involvement to occur, but Gopher Tortoise are also a keystone species due to their burrows. Many other animals, such as rodents, snakes, and other vertebrates, use these burrows for shelter or to even hatch or have their own young. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and the United States Forest Service, along with other agencies, have come together in the last few years to actively ensure the species lives on. During nesting season, all of us search different locations across the De Soto National Forest in Wiggins, Mississippi, to look for burrows. Once we come across a burrow that shows potential to have eggs, we get to work digging. Usually, you do not have to dig too deep before you hit a pocket in the ground and see the smooth white top of the eggs. This is a very gentle process (that had me very nervous due to the fragile nature of the eggs) that has to be done slowly and steadily. Once the eggs can be removed from the nest, they are put into large plastic containers that have been filled with the soil from their burrow; the container is then labeled with how many eggs, where they were found, and who found them.

During this collection season, I found four clutches of eggs consisting of 5, 3, 2, and 1. Finding my first clutch was thrilling but also terrifying because I was so nervous I would be too rough digging and breaking an egg. My favorite clutch I found might have been the one with one egg because it was the only egg left alive from a nest that had been predated by another animal; I like to think I got there just in time to save it from being eaten.

Overall, getting to actively help and monitor a species in need has been a very fulfilling aspect of my internship with the Mount Adams Institute. Although I have never really had a fascination or interest in reptiles (I grew up being obsessed with sharks, wolves, and bears), this internship has sparked a new level of curiosity within me. I love seeing the Gopher Tortoise, Rough Greensnakes, Coal Skinks, and even the Diamondback Rattlesnakes, who I have found a new appreciation for during this internship and throughout the forest.