St. Petersburg College’s resident gopher tortoise, Titan, recently got some new companions at the STEM Center campus. The 6-year-old tortoise was the STEM Center’s first since becoming a permitted waif recipient site by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) in December. Four more tortoises, which were rescued and rehabilitated, were released in the past week into the upland habitat area at the campus.
“The gopher tortoise is known as a keystone species because scientists have identified up to 350 other species that rely on their burrows,” explained Erica Moulton, SPC’s STEM Center Director.
In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as a threatened species, and both the tortoise and its burrow, which can be five to six feet deep and 10 to 15 feet long, are protected under state law. Its introduction to the upland area is an important step in SPC’s overall habitat restoration efforts at the STEM Center.
“Having these tortoises on site will continue to provide an opportunity for transient animals like snakes and marsh rabbits to establish themselves in the area and help revitalize the area to its natural state,” Moulton said.
SPC began its habitat restoration of the area last year through a grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Efforts have included removing invasive plant species and installing native plants, and the purchase of oyster domes to install in the estuary as a living shoreline. Plans are also under way for a boardwalk and dock at the center, but, for now, the area remains closed to the public.
“The STEM Center is home to other significant species, like osprey and a pair of nesting bald eagles. These birds of prey need other small mammals to survive,” Moulton said. “The addition of the tortoises adds to the rich habitat diversity we have here, and the importance of the center as a nature conservation area.”
Moulton says the tortoises are adapting well to their new habitat, and would like to use the new family as a learning opportunity for SPC’s STEM students by developing related educational materials. But, first, three of them still need a name. The public is invited to add their name suggestions on the center’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SPCSTEMCenter/. You can also follow their progress on Instagram @spcstemcenter.