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Riverbanks Zoo raising rare gopher tortoise hatchlings

Conservation project at zoo will help endangered tortoise

Riverbanks Zoo is raising 29 gopher tortoises to tag and release back into the wild so more can be learned about the endangered species.
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Riverbanks Zoo is raising 29 gopher tortoises to tag and release back into the wild so more can be learned about the endangered species.

Gopher tortoises, with their yellow-brown shells and shovel-like front legs, are a state endangered species. Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is working with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to help safeguard their future.

The zoo’s herpetologists are raising nearly 30 gopher tortoise hatchlings as part of a SCDNR study. Eggs collected from the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve were hatched at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab and brought to the zoo in December. The animals will live at Riverbanks for the next year.

“Our job is to take baby tortoises and raise them for about a year to when they are large enough to put radio transmitters on. Then the folks at South Carolina DNR and Savannah River Ecology Lab will track these tortoises and find out what happens to them,” Curator of Herpetology Scott Pfaff said.

Gopher tortoises, so named for their ability to dig deep burrows, were once common in the southeastern United States, but are now found only in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Their burrows provide shelter for many types of animals, making them a keystone species.

SCDNR plans to track the tortoises' movements with the use of radio transmitters once they are relocated back to the Aiken preserve. Part of the study will evaluate the use of waif tortoises (tortoises from unknown origins) to grow the population.

"By following hatchling and yearling tortoises with radio telemetry, we hope to better understand survival at this location and evaluate the use of waif tortoises as a conservation tool,” SCDNR herpetologist Will Dillman said in a news release.

The animals will not be on display at Riverbanks Zoo.

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