Gopher Tortoise Research

Research on gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) conducted by a JU professor and undergrad student has caught national attention.

Associate Professor of Biology John Enz, Ph.D. and marine science sophomore Alexandria Gagne have spent the last nine months working in conjunction with Maryville College’s Dave Unger, Ph.D. and undergraduate Thomas Moore studying the gopher tortoise population on Cumberland Island, one of the last undeveloped beaches on the Atlantic coast.

The research has attracted the attention of Emmy Award-winning ABC TV program “Rock the Park” and was featured in the show’s 2015 season premiere on October 3.

While Cumberland Island is a protected National Park, the tortoises have not previously been scientifically studied and documented, the only evidence that the population existing being anecdotal references found in books written about the island, Enz said.

Partially funded through a grant from the JU Undergraduate Research Fund to Gagne, the scientists have used GPS mapping along with burrow and remote game cameras to learn about the population’s age, gender, eating patterns, living conditions, and the size and temperature of its burrows.

“The populations also seem to contain all age classes — reproductive adults, juveniles and hatchlings — which indicates a healthy viable population on the island,” Enz said.

Enz noted that habitat loss, urban sprawl, and over-exploitation of land have put the gopher tortoise on the threatened species list in much of the southeastern United States. Gopher tortoises are considered a “keystone” species because their famous burrows for which they are named have been documented as providing shelter for more than 300 species of animals, including other endangered species, in Pine Savannah habitats.

“Because of gopher tortoise importance to the ecosystems where they are found, it is important to study and learn about the populations wherever it is found in order to properly protect and manage them,” he said.

“It is exciting, given all the technology and scientists out there and the year 2015, to find an unstudied population of such a unique animal and to be part of the ground-floor research of it on Cumberland Island,” Enz said. “To also be able to involve JU undergraduate students like Alexandria in this experience is definitely the best part of the whole project for me.”

A preview of the episode can be found online at