Those who know me - not even those who know me well - know that I am not overly fond of boat rides (which is a slight problem for someone who lives on an island). When I express this to anyone new, that person generally assumes seasickness is to blame. Not so. Despite my trepidation at boarding floating vessels, I've been aboard several and have never once been seasick. Now, motion sickness in a car...well, that's another story. As a child, when my parents took me on curvy mountain roads or for any distance that got us out of town, I had to lay down in the back seat just to keep from turning green in the gills. Once I learned to drive, my motion sickness nearly became a thing of the past. These days, however, when I find myself back in civilization (and especially when someone else is in the driver's seat), highway speeds make me nauseous. That's because I live in a place without a single paved road, where the speed limit - if it were posted - would be around 15 mph. Ignore this and the lives of lemurs, cranes, and especially gopher tortoises are at risk.
It's this dichotomy of speed that made me wonder if our baby tortoises get motion sickness. Every day, all twenty-three of our baby gopher tortoises are removed from their sandboxes in the commissary and driven out to a small enclosure where the little reptiles can get some sunshine without being eaten by raccoons. We carefully pick each one up and set them down gently in a wading pool filled with sand, counting to make sure everyone is accounted for. The youngest eleven of the bunch were hatched only last August; less than a year ago. Their shells measure a mere two- or three-and-a-half inches long. By comparison, my body measures about sixty-six inches long. If a creature thirty-three times my size picked me up and whisked me into a sandbox, I'd sure as heck lose my breakfast. Tortoises aren't known for being particularly speedy creatures either. So, that sudden switch in velocity could be terrifying. Yet, the babies gopher tortoises take it in stride. Maybe they're used to it. After all, they've been hand raised by us enormous creatures since the day they hatched.
The gopher tortoise is Georgia's state reptile and is classified as a threatened species here. That's one of the reasons our vet started what we refer to as the "head start program." Each year, the tortoise folks go out to the big field known as North Pasture and hunt around for nests. Any week now, the island's gopher tortoises will start laying their eggs - those that are mature enough to, that is. It takes at least nine years for a female to reach reproduction age. When she does, she'll only lay one clutch a year of about six eggs. When the tortoise folks find a nest, they'll remove each ping-pong ball sized egg and bring it back to our incubators. Our incubators are set at varying temperatures because it's temperature that determines the gender of a tortoise. Any temperature over thirty degrees Celsius will yield girls and under thirty will yield boys. Once they hatch, they'll be raised by interns like myself until they're old enough to fend for themselves. Then, they'll be released to roam with the 200-300 other gopher tortoises we have on St. Catherines.
I have to admit to getting a bit testy when someone who ought to know better fails to make the monkey vs. lemur distinction. Likewise, I find I'm a tad impatient with myself when I slip up and say "turtle" when I mean "tortoise." Although they may look similar, there are several differences between the two reptiles. The key to remembering which is which (at least for me) lies in the type of habitat they live in. Most tortoises dwell on dry land, while turtles can be found swimming around lakes, ponds, and oceans. Accordingly, their feet have very different features. Turtles - like frogs, ducks, and Labrador retrievers - have webbed feet. When I handle my tiny tortoise friends, I can see that they've got flat "elephantine" feet with claws for digging into the dirt. They're very good at digging, which is why they're named after the burrowing mammal. One tortoise can have several burrows, each around fifteen feet long.
It's this burrow that makes the gopher tortoise such an important species worth protecting because over three hundred (that's right, THREE HUNDRED) other species of animals use gopher tortoise burrows too. My favorite of these is the eastern indigo snake, which is wicked cool and worthy of an entire post of its own. We don't have these snakes here on the island though, sadly. I guess they're like me and find it hard to get across the water without a boat. Maybe they get seasick.