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Tortoise champion takes cause to FAU’s president

By Lona O’Connor, The Palm Beach Post
BOCA RATON

The gopher tortoise is a press agent’s nightmare: He spends most of his time underground, venturing out only to feed and bask in the sun.

About 100 tortoises live in a 90-acre nature preserve on the Florida Atlantic University campus, but their numbers could drop because they can’t adapt to the development occurring all around them. Their champion is a 22-year-old student named Joshua Patrick Scholl. He chose FAU because of the preserve, where he and others study how gopher tortoises live, and what kills them.

In 2009, when ground was broken for the highly anticipated new FAU football stadium, 13 tortoises had to be moved off the site, which also took 30 acres from the university’s then 120-acre preserve.

Scholl worries that as the bustling university inevitably grows, the preserve will dwindle further in size, and so will the numbers of its people-shy tortoises and burrowing owls, the FAU mascot.

The gopher tortoise is a keystone species: If the tortoise goes, an entire ecosystem — 300 species of animals, insects and plants that interact with it — might also go away.

“This whole area is doomed to disappear if we don’t do something,” Scholl said.

The preserve sits at ground zero of the struggle between wildlife and development. It is wedged between the Boca Raton Airport and the construction site of FAU’s new stadium and Innovation Village, both to be completed this fall.

Both projects, important to the university, inevitably will produce traffic and noise, a nightmare for the tortoises. Given their powerful homing instincts, the relocated tortoises will try to return to their original burrows, at peril to their lives. On Thursday, about five more tortoises will be moved by a certified tortoise handler to make way for a stadium road.

Scholl, a biology student, soon found he had to navigate public policy as well as science to be successful in his mission. Toward that end, he joined an FAU conservation advisory group. He and others are seeking grants to research the preserve and convert part of it into a nature walk.

Scholl discussed the preserve with FAU President Mary Jane Saunders, whose field is botany.

She noted that FAU is spending $255,000 over five years to manage the preserve, removing invasive plant species.

“This is our outreach to keep the habitats healthy,” Saunders said.

Moving tortoises, though closely controlled by state officials, in an imperfect solution to the tortoises’ plight. When moved, some make new homes, but others can become ill from the stress and still others will try doggedly to return to homes that no longer exist, and die trying.

The No. 1 cause of their decline is that people have taken over their flatlands territory.

“We recaptured two,” said Scholl, referring to the 13 tortoises removed when ground was broken for the stadium. Scholl is certified to handle, mark and count tortoises. The rest have not been located so it is not known if they are alive or dead.

Gopher tortoises were classified as “threatened” in Florida in 2007, because pf their severe rate of decline. The rules governing them were strengthened after a public uproar over “incidental takes,” which allowed developers to bulldoze over active burrows, condemning the tortoises below ground to a slow death by starvation and asphyxiation.

 

 

 

Article by Lona O’Connor of the Palm Beach Post:

BOCA RATON — Tortoises, newts, worms and spiders will be stars of the show on Friday, when Florida Atlantic University students host BioBlitz 2010, a 24-hour event that combines environmental education with spotting species.

Organized by FAU senior Leonardo Calle and junior Nicolas Mazzoli, in conjunction with the FAU environmental club SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability), Bioblitz is a nationwide project of the National Geographic Society and the National Park Service, which sponsor April events in a number of states.

At FAU, student volunteers will host elementary and middle school students from Spady Elementary in Delray Beach and the Henderson School in Boca Raton during the early part of the day.

Then, from 3 p.m. to sundown on Friday, families and others can join FAU students for species spotting on guided walks on habitat land on the Boca Raton campus. Visitors can walk along a trail in the 80-acre FAU habitat area, ask questions and get to know biodiversity in their own back yard.

Among the topics to be explained are invasive versus native plants, vegetation changes along the walking route and conservation issues.

BioBlitz is also coming to Florida’s Biscayne National Park April 30 and May 1. To RSVP to the Friday public portion of BioBlitz, e-mail BioblitzFAU@gmail.com or call Leonardo Calle at (561) 305-2284 . For more information on the BioBlitz at Biscayne National Park, go online to www.nationalgeographic.com/field/projects/bioblitz/

National Coordinated BioBlitz Press Release:

Boca Raton, Florida- Diverse students from many campuses nationwide have organized a National Coordinated Bio Blitz during the month of April under the program SEEDS. SEEDS stands for Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability a program of the Ecological Society of America that aims at increasing underrepresented students in the field of ecology. The activity will take place in many states and territories of the US ranging from Detroit, California, to Puerto Rico among others.  A BioBlitz is an event where a group of volunteers or students collaborates with science experts-both professional and amateur—to inventory as many biological species as possible present in a specified area over a 24 hour period.

“We are looking to unite SEEDS students under a common goal and what better way to do that than thru a BioBlitz, an activity that makes students get outside and work with they’re closest communities and in their campuses through a rapid biodiversity assessment”-said Zachary Brym coordinator of the national event. (It’s super important to do quotations, lots of them it should be filled with quotations) Most students come from a Natural Sciences background but they are aiming in engaging people from all areas, interacting with students from many faculties and with their adjacent communities.

Some of the BioBlitz’s will bring in students from the different K-12 schools that surround the campuses to get kids involved in the process of identifying species. So that kids also are educated about the importance of biodiversity. Other SEEDS students will use the information that comes out of the BioBlitz to lobby for different projects they are interested in developing in their campuses. Leonardo Calle from Florida A University said: “SEEDS-FAU intends to use the BioBlitz as a means of promoting awareness of the Gopher Tortoise and its habitat. We are hopping to gather support to conserve this natural area from future development. We also hope to promote an appreciation for the environmental science being conducted at FAU. We will achieve this objective by creating a platform where scientists and non-scientists (students and citizens of the community) can have a hands-on experience of the natural world in our backyard.”

Species will be identified using standard keys and guides. In some cases, location- specific fauna and flora analyses will already be available and will be useful for reference. The web-based database in which all the data will ultimately reside will permit the uploading of graphics, so participants will be encouraged to make digital images of interesting or puzzling findings for posting on the site.

“The idea is to have a very systematic way of collecting the data since these inventories may serve as baselines in subsequent surveys of biodiversity: imagine coming back 5 years later to a BioBlitz site and repeating the exercise, only to find that all the amphibians have disappeared. For our data to be useful in this way, however, it must be verified by an appropriate expert. In essence, then, BioBlitzes will produce two classes of data: expert-verified, and unverified.But mostly we are hopping to engange everyone in a learning experience about ecology and the importance of diversity in all its sense.”- finalized Brym, coordinator of the national BioBlitz effort. The National Coordinated BioBlitz has the support of the National Geographic Society, and Earth Trek (a citizen science organization) in an effort to ask regional questions regarding biodiversity, as well as air & water quality, at different SEEDS campuses across the country.


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