Apr 16, 2024 - News

Scoop: Mysterious tortoise deaths at St. Pete's Boyd Hill under investigation

A brown tortoise with scaly arms and thick claws crawls through brush.

A gopher tortoise at Seabranch Preserve State Park in Stuart. Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

More than a third of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve's gopher tortoise population has died, preserve officials confirmed to Axios — and the cause is a mystery.

Why it matters: Gopher tortoises are in trouble, environmental groups say.

The latest: Surveyors conducting a gopher tortoise burrow survey found 57 tortoise carcasses over the last six weeks at the preserve, St. Petersburg's natural and cultural areas manager Taylor Graham Thornton told Axios.

  • No foul play is suspected, she said.
  • The burrow survey is conducted every two years to keep track of the 245-acre city-owned park's gopher tortoise population. The most recent survey began last month and concluded on Sunday.

The big picture: Gopher tortoises can live up to 80 years and are spread out among parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

  • They thrive in pine flatwoods, prairies and scrub ecosystems, where they can burrow into sandy soil.
  • Their burrows provide shelter, food and other resources for more than 350 species, some of which face their own dwindling numbers.

Stunning stat: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service projected that as much as 70% of the gopher tortoise population will be lost by 2100, according to the Center for Biological Diversity's lawsuit, which is ongoing.

Zoom in: In Boyd Hill, it wasn't unusual to log a few carcasses during past burrow surveys, Thornton told Axios. But as volunteers kept finding bleached, empty shells, it became clear something was wrong.

  • Based on the state of the carcasses and where they were found, surveyors suspected that coyotes were eating the turtles.

The intrigue: Wildlife officials are unsure whether they killed and ate the reptiles or fed on the carcasses after they died, possibly from an illness.

  • Gopher tortoises have been known to die from upper respiratory tract disease, according to FWC.
  • And in 2021, the University of Florida said its researchers had found a new strain of bacteria "strongly associated" with death in gopher tortoises.

What's next: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and federal officials took blood samples and swabs from living tortoises to determine whether they're sick,Thornton said.

  • They'll also set up wildlife cameras to observe coyotes.
  • From there, wildlife officials will make recommendations for the best path forward.
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