A boost for a threatened species

The wrinkle faces poking out of sand-covered shells may bring a whole new meaning to “a face only a mother could love.” Though gopher tortoises aren’t beacons of traditional beauty, they have a tremendous amount of environmental merit.

Two USF biology teachers were awarded a $2 million grant by the National Science Foundation to study the turtles. The NSF is an independent agency of the U.S. government that promotes the progress of science, according to its Web site.

The two biology professors, Henry Mushinsky and Earl McCoy, will study the upper respiratory disease affecting significant numbers of the gopher tortoise population.

According to Mushinsky, the respiratory infection causes lesions in the nose and throat. He refers to it as a “wasting away” disease because it makes the tortoise more susceptible to secondary infections. It eventually leaves the tortoise unable to function normally.

Gopher tortoises live in scrub forests, pine flatwoods or along beaches. They spend most of their lives in their burrows, which can be about 10 feet deep and 30 feet long. Healthy turtles eat grasses, legumes and other grass-like plants, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, the infection interferes with the turtle’s ability to eat.

“Basically, they starve to death,” Mushinsky said.

Mushinsky said the disease, also known as “tortoise plague,” is comparable to pneumonia in humans.

“It does kill some tortoises,” Mushinsky said.

The disease was first reported in the early 1980s, Mushinsky said. The first reported cases in Florida came from Sanibel Island.

Mushinsky has been studying gopher tortoises for more than 20 years. For 15 of those years, he worked with Earl McCoy. Mushinsky said some of his graduate students also work with the gopher tortoises.

The grant was awarded in July, and work on the grant will continue for five years. They enlisted the help of veterinarians at the University of Florida who will study the clinical side of the disease (how it affects the turtle), Mushinsky said.

He and McCoy will focus on the ecology side — the environmental factors causing transmission and creating a model to predict outbreaks, he said.

Though the study covers areas all over Florida, the primary place of study will be in North Florida, Mushinsky said, because it holds the largest part of the gopher tortoise population.

“There used to be a large number in Hillsborough,” he said. Human development in Hillsborough County reduced the turtle population significantly, he said.

Habitat destruction remains the largest obstacle for the tortoise population. According to Mushinksy, there has been an 80 to 90 percent reduction in Florida’s turtle population since the 1950s.

“We don’t know very much about turtles. But an adult turtle can live 60 to 80 years.But getting to become an adult is very hard,” Mushinsky said.

“It’s an uphill battle to be a tortoise.”

Because the juvenile turtles have a fatality rate of almost 97 percent in the first two years, it makes rebuilding a turtle population is a challenge.

“Once you hurt a turtle population, it takes a long time to recover,” Mushinsky said.

Mushinsky has been at USF for almost 23 years. In addition to studying tortoises, he belongs to the Gopher Tortoise Council, a council set up to educate people about turtle conservation and protect the turtles. He’s also the future president of the Herpetologists’ League, which, according to its Web site is “an international organization of people devoted to studying the biology of amphibians and reptiles.”

Mushinsky said the gopher tortoise is so important because it is a “keystone species.”

“The tortoise itself, and their burrows, provide homes for hundreds of other species that live (in the same environment),” Mushinsky said.

“If you pull out the keystone, the whole thing collapses.”

Contact Kristan Bright at oraclefeatures@yahoo.com