New Study By Aquarium Researchers Will Help Formulate Strategic Management Plan For Gopher Tortoises

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

With wide, spade-like claws and sturdy hind legs, the Gopher Tortoise seems almost purpose-built to move earth. Like shelled bulldozers, these reptilian excavators dig deep, winding tunnels beneath the scrublands and coastal dunes of the American Southeast. These burrows provide crucial shelter for the tortoises as well as hundreds of other species, from Eastern Indigo Snakes to Gopher Frogs to Burrowing Owls.

Despite the positive ripple effect Gopher Tortoises have within their ecosystems, their numbers in the last century have fallen by 80 percent — including those living on federal land — due to habitat loss and fragmentation caused by human activity.

For a keystone species like the Gopher Tortoise, a continuing decline would be a big problem for a lot of other animals, explains conservation biologist Dr. Josh Ennen of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. 

“If they were to disappear and their burrows were to disappear, it would affect numerous species. The importance of Gopher Tortoises is disproportionate to their abundance,” Dr. Ennen explains. “By protecting this one turtle species, you’re actually protecting upwards of 400 other species, which is very important.”

The genetically distinct population of Gopher Tortoises found west of the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers was federally listed as threatened in 1987. Despite facing a multitude of imperilments, however, tortoises living east of these rivers lack federal protection.

Maintaining a species’ genetic diversity is crucial to ensuring its long-term survival. Until recently, however, scientists lacked a comprehensive examination of Gopher Tortoise genetics with which to ensure the species’ gene pool remained healthy and robust.

In a recently published study, Dr. Ennen and Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute geographic information systems analyst Sarah Sweat joined other Southeastern researchers in producing a genetic survey of Gopher Tortoises across the species’ entire range. In all, the group sampled more than 930 Gopher Tortoises from 47 sites in both the species’ listed and unlisted regions.

The study, which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management, found that Gopher Tortoises actually comprise five distinct genetic groups rather than two, as was previously supposed. Researchers found that rivers such as the Mobile and Tombigbee, represent an important barrier to genetic intermingling of these groups.

The findings pave the way to individually manage these sub-populations of Gopher Tortoises so as to preserve the species’ genetic diversity. Doing so would represent an important step in formulating a long-term conservation plan, Dr. Ennen says.

“If you have separate populations that are different, genetically, you want to maintain that evolutionary potential,” he says. “It’s a great conservation value because when you protect this one species, you protect a whole ecosystem.”

Guests to the Tennessee Aquarium can observe the way other animals use Gopher Tortoise burrows by visiting the Delta Country gallery inside the River Journey building. For more information about Gopher Tortoises, go  

Read the full text of the study at:

Click here for video of Dr. Ennen discussing the importance of Gopher Tortoises and the study.  

This Week's Tennessee Tourism Round Up

Travel back to medieval times, toast your wine glass, relive the magic of Harry Potter, hang out with the class of Rydell High with  Grease , hunt for bargains, hunt for ghosts, camp out at the zoo or jam out to free music. Here’s what’s going on across Tennessee this week. For a complete list of events, visit . Ongoing Memphis –  ... (click for more)

Oceans 3D: Our Blue Planet Launches At IMAX May 25

For many Tennessee Aquarium guests, gazing into the Secret Reef exhibit is as close to SCUBA diving as they’ll ever experience. But beginning May 25, visitors will be able to delve even deeper when Oceans 3D: Our Blue Planet premieres at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater.  This new IMAX film takes audiences on an undersea adventure of a lifetime. Using OceanX’s research ... (click for more)

Man Shot Thursday Morning When Suspects Attempt To Rob His Residence

Ryan Crowe, 22, was shot Thursday morning in the 600 block of Ashland Terrace, when suspects made entry into his residence and demanded money from him. A witness stated to police that while Mr. Crowe attempted to fight off the suspects, he was shot by one of them. The Chattanooga Police Department responded to a call about the shooting at 2:06 a.m. Thursday.  Upon arrival, ... (click for more)

Unemployment Rates Drop In Every County Across Tennessee In April

Governor Bill Haslam and Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips on Thursday announced that county unemployment rates decreased in all 95 counties across Tennessee in April and all counties are at or below five percent. “Our investments in education and workforce development are showing results in all corners of the state and to have such low ... (click for more)

Refuting Racism

In an opinion piece, 5/18/18, Rev. Josh Woodrow referred to me and my fellow School Board member, Joe Smith, as racists and white supremacists because we spoke out against busing. I have never met or spoken with Rev. Woodrow so he knows nothing about me. The reverend obviously knows nothing about Joe Smith either. Seems one of the reverend’s hobbies is “brewing beer”. Maybe, ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: ‘Don’t Invent, Discover!’

When Randy Boyd stood in front of more than 75 black ministers in Memphis on Tuesday, the ever-dynamic “doer of deeds” told the pastors an exciting story. He talked about “First Things First” of Chattanooga because the Tennessee gubernatorial candidate is totally sold on what Julie Baumgardner and her team have proven keeps families together. Boyd then met with some representatives ... (click for more)