Gopher Tortoise | Gopherus polyphemus
The Gopher Tortoise, Georgia’s official state reptile, belongs to a group of land tortoises that originated in western North America nearly 60 million years ago. At least 23 species of tortoise are known to have existed on our continent since that time, but only four remain today. Three of the living species, the Desert tortoise, Texas tortoise, and Bolson tortoise are found in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. The ancestors of gopher tortoises, along with those of scrub jays, burrowing owls, and short-tailed snakes, were part of a savanna fauna that migrated into the southeastern United States millions of years ago.
Gopher tortoises inhabits the coastal plain of the southeastern United States, with most being found in north-central Florida and southern Georgia. Their numbers have declined range-wide, but have been severely reduced at the western and northern part of their range. Gopher tortoise populations along Florida's southeast coast and the Florida Panhandle have been greatly reduced from their historic numbers.
The life of a gopher tortoise revolves around a tunnel-like burrow that is excavated using its shovel-like front feet. Burrows can be up to 40 feet in length and 10 feet in depth. Each burrow has a single opening and the width of the burrow is approximately equal to the length of the tortoise. Therefore, the tortoise is able to turn around at any point within the burrow, and consequently, burrow width is a good indicator of the size and approximate age of the tortoise. Gopher tortoise burrows are usually easy to spot in the landscape because of the characteristic mound of loose sand at the burrow entrance called the "apron.”
Gopher tortoise burrows remain at a fairly constant temperature and humidity level year-round, thus providing shelter for the tortoise during periods of extreme temperatures, drought, and fire. Tortoise burrows also afford refuge to other animals including more than 360 animal species. The list includes the indigo snake, pine snake, gopher frog, Florida mouse, opossum, armadillo, burrowing owl, gopher cricket, scarab beetles, and many others. Some, such as the Florida mouse, cannot exist without the tortoise burrow.
Red Wolf | Canis rufus
The red wolf is one of the world’s most endangered wild canids. Once common throughout the southeastern United States, red wolf populations were decimated in the 1960’s due to intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat. A remnant population of red wolves was found along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. After being declared an endangered species in 1973, efforts were made to locate and capture as many wild red wolves as possible. Of the 17 remaining wolves captured by biologists, 14 became the founders of a successful captive breeding program. Consequently, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared red wolves extinct in the wild in 1980.
By 1987, enough red wolves were bred in captivity to begin a restoration program in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. Since then, the experimental population area has expanded to include three national wildlife refuges, a Department of Defense bombing range, state-owned lands, and private property, spanning a total of 1.5 million acres.
Over 100 red wolves roam their native habitats in five northeastern North Carolina counties and approximately 200 comprise the Species Survival Plan captive breeding program in sites across the United States. Interbreeding with the coyote (an exotic species not native to North Carolina) has been recognized as the most significant and detrimental threat affecting restoration of red wolves to this section of their historical home range. Currently, adaptive management efforts are making good progress in reducing the threat of coyotes while building the wild red wolf population in northeastern North Carolina.
American Alligator | Alligator mississippiensis
American alligators are probably the best studied species of crocodilian, and there is a large amount of literature available on most aspects of its biology, behavior and ecology. Population surveys are extensive and ongoing, and data is available throughout the alligators' range due to links with management and harvest programs. While populations were severely affected in the early parts of the century (with protection occurring in the early 1960's), the recovery of this species has been remarkable in most areas thanks mainly due to properly controlled and monitored conservation and sustainable use (eg. tourism, harvesting) programs. The belly skin of the alligator produces a generally high-quality leather, and this resulted in considerable hunting pressure earlier in the 20th century, particularly in Louisiana and Florida. Even after hunting was prohibited in Florida, illegal poaching continued into the 1970s. Were it not for additional changes in the law to control the movement of hides, many think extinction may have been possible. Since then, populations have improved considerably and they are now only considered to be threatened in a few areas by habitat degradation, including water management programs.
In some areas, increasing alligator populations cause problems with human populations on the edge of alligator habitat, and "nuisance alligator" programs are required to deal with these cases. These involve catching and removing animals which have roamed too far into human habitation, or which pose a potential threat to people. Some animals are relocated, but this has generally been shown to be ineffective as alligators often return to their home range within a matter of days. Most recent "nuisance alligator" programs either sell the animals to a farm, or use their skins to help fund the program. Given the high degree of human-alligator contact, some attacks have been reported, but these are very rarely serious. There have only been a handful of alligator-related fatalities recorded in the United States since the 1950s, and improved education and awareness is the best long-term way to avoid future incidents. An increase in recent attacks have been attributed to illegal feeding of alligators, making them less wary of humans and more likely to attack instead of flee.
Alligators have been shown to be an important part of their ecosystem, and are thus regarded by many as a 'keystone' species. This encompasses many areas from control of prey species to the creation of peat through their nesting activities. Several other species benefit from the presence of alligator nests, not least the Florida Red-bellied turtle which incubates its own eggs there. The creation of 'alligator holes' is of great value not only to the alligators, but to the other species of animals which use them. For these animals, the value of the refuge outweighs any additional risks from their creators. Alligators in some areas are also showing greatly increased levels of mercury, an indicator of the state of the ecosystem. This may have long-term implications for their ability to reproduce, but the effects are still being quantified.
Cheetah | Acinonyx jubatus
The world's fastest land animal, the cheetah, is the most specialized member of the cat family because it can reach speeds of 70 miles per hour. Unlike other cats, the cheetah has a leaner body, longer legs and has been referred to as the greyhound of the cats. It is not an aggressive animal, using flight versus fight. With its weak jaws and small teeth, the price it paid for speed, it cannot fight larger predators to protect its kill or young.
About 10,000-12,500 cheetahs are estimated to remain in 24 to 26 African countries and less than 100 animals in Iran. Namibia has the world's largest number of free-ranging cheetahs with about 3,000 animals.