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A few years ago I read Janisse Ray’s #ecologyofacrackerchildhood and was touched by her story of falling in love with the longleaf pine ecosystem. The relationships she described, which create that particular place and habitat, awed me, deeply. I’m grateful for the storied way she shares about her place; so others could grab onto and fall in love with it vicariously.
What I learned is that the Gopher Tortoise is a heroic burrower. They make extensive systems of tunnels and rooms in the sandy loam beneath the Longleaf pine groves. More than they can use themselves. These burrows create habitat for more than 300 other species, which sets Gopherus polyphemus squarely in the designation of keystone species. Without these burrows, the animal community of these forests would not likely stay or survive: the plants of longleaf pine forests, including the trees themselves, need regular fires to thrive. Some of the animals who will seek shelter, either seasonally or during the fires, are picture above, including a burrowing owl, the florida mouse and the pocket gopher. There is also a dung beetle endemic to the longleaf pine forests, who goes around cleaning up after everyone underground.
Longleaf pine forests are endangered habitats. Not only the trees, but many of the endemic small mammals, reptiles, insects and grasses for whom they serve as scaffolding.
They took a huge hit in the 19th and 20th centuries. Turpentine is extracted from the resins of pine trees. Both the wood and turpentine were hugely important to the ship-building industry. What began as a habitat that stretched over more than 90,000,000 acres, has been reduced by 95%.