Sandhill Survivors

This blog post was written by “Sticky” Steve Morrison and was originally published in 2012. With his permission, we are sharing this information better to understand the impacts of our controlled burns. Learn more about our spring burn with this blog posting Anatomy of a Burn 40 Days Later by Bok Tower Gardens team member Whitney Costner.

You can also learn more about “Sticky” Steve with an upcoming exhibit curated by Paul O’Neill at the Lake Wales Arts Center. Learn more with this Video by Paul O’Neill.A colorful local character, Sticky Steve was also featured “A Sticky Life”by filmmaker Jen Brown of Into Nature Films to learn more about his contribution to fire leadership and stewardship of the Lake Wales Ridge.

Sandhill Survivor

Animals, including people, need habitat. Some animals are more demanding than others when it comes to the type of habitat they need to survive. But others are habitat generalists; they can live almost anywhere. For example, humans, raccoons, rats, and crows (to name just a few species) can adapt well to many types of habitat. Because generalists are so adaptable, they survive even if their habitat changes. But species that are habitat-specific are usually rare these days. As the specific habitat they need diminishes, so do they. Florida scrub-jays are a good example of this. They need not only scrub habitat but scrub in a specific condition, with vegetation not too low, not too high, just the right height. Back when scrub was common, this was not a problem. Today, scrub is rare, and its namesake jay is even rarer.

There is one habitat specialist in Florida that, even after its habitat is completely gone, manages to persist. It was a denizen of sandhill habitat, the vast pine savanna that once stretched from central Florida north to the Carolinas. Today, less than 1% of sandhill remains, but this animal continues to eke out a living long after its habitat was converted to other uses. It literally sticks its head in the sand to this reality. It is the sandhill survivor, the southeastern pocket gopher.

Few people have ever seen a pocket gopher, which is unfortunate, because they are one of the cutest animals around. It is understandable, because pocket gophers spend almost their entire lives underground. They keep busy a few inches below ground digging elaborate networks of tunnels and leaving telltale mounds of their sandy excavations. Florida crackers called them “salamanders” which was a tongue-twisted alteration of their original colloquial name “sandy mounder”. It is common to see several dozen yellow sand mounds in close proximity on a road shoulder or in an abandoned field. The pattern made by the mounds is an above-ground outline of the tunnel below-ground which may extend for a hundred yards or more. In the early morning a cautious pocket gopher can occasionally be spotted pushing sand out from the side of one of its mounds.

If you live in a former sandhill, you may occasionally be blessed with a pocket gopher in your yard! Not everyone is necessarily pleased to wake and look out over their yard and see a string of mounds resembling miniature Egyptian pyramids rising out of their manicured turf. Gophers seem to be fond of golf courses, too, causing great consternation to greenskeepers, memorably depicted by Bill Murray who went to extremes to rid his course of them in the movie Caddyshack.

Pocket gophers are solitary root and tuber eaters about the size of a rat and have “pockets” on the sides of their mouths for storing extra food. They have large front teeth and large front claws for digging. In spite of these features they are very endearing creatures. They may be preyed upon by hawks, owls, fox, or coyotes when they push sand out of their burrow, but perhaps their most serious predator (besides man) is the pine snake. This large snake is designed specifically to traverse the gopher’s tunnel, and it spends most of its life underground in search of pocket gophers.

The pocket gopher is a reminder that the very spot where its mounds are today was once a verdant pine woods, full of many other species that were not so adaptable as this industrious little excavator.