An unlikely hero saves the day when wildfires sweep through the southeastern United States! 350 species of small ground animals all have one creature to thank, and instead of flying in with a cape fluttering behind them, this hero lumbers along slowly, carrying their own armor. Let’s meet the gopher turtle, an ecosystem engineer working behind the scenes to reshape the landscape and protect their fellow creatures!

Sometimes, it isn’t the flashiest one that ends up saving the town. Sometimes… it’s the one who goes around digging holes! We’re headed to a longleaf pine forest in the state of Georgia to see for ourselves how to be the best neighbors ever—by doing what we can to make life better for everyone!

Surviving the flames, thanks to the gopher tortoise!

With shovel-like front legs and stumpy elephant-like back legs, the gopher tortoise is, to say the least, very cute. But to add to this, they’re also nice! Throughout their lives, gopher tortoises can dig dozens of burrows in their territory, only using a few regularly at a time. This leaves these underground sanctuaries open to other creatures, who they happily share them with.

This comes in particularly handy when the fires begin to blaze across the forest floor. While this is natural—the forest’s way of renewing and reinvigorating itself—most of the small creatures on land don’t have natural defenses against fire. Thankfully, a quick jump in a gopher tortoise burrow will keep the flames away and keep the temperatures steady. (Gopher tortoises are ectotherms, which means they get their body heat from outside sources. They dig these burrows to regulate their body temperature! 1)

See for yourself in this short video from Terra Mater!

Via: Terra Mater  2

For more great videos from Terra Mater, check out and subscribe to their YouTube channel!

One for all! Lessons from the gopher tortoise.

Like the gopher tortoise, each of us can do our small part in creating safe spaces for our community members. When hard times come, we’re often forced to lean on each other for support and safety—so what is it that you can offer your neighbors? Perhaps it’s a listening ear, a hot meal, or assistance in their garden. Whatever it is, you have the power to help people shelter from the storms!

Every one of us has a special skill that often goes unnoticed until it becomes useful. And if we look to the gopher tortoise for wisdom, we’ll see that staying humble, continuing to do what we do, and sharing it with others can have a huge impact.

These ecosystem engineers are also making it happen!

From the prairies to the marshlands, nothing would work right without these animals and their unique skills!

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Is an ecosystem like a community? One beloved natural space was almost lost forever when it lost two of it's most important members, but here's how embracing their unique skills saved their home! 

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As always, my friend, stay open to new possibilities!

  • Sam

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Notes:

  1. “Gopher Tortoise.” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 2011, myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/reptiles/gopher-tortoise/. Accessed 27 May 2021.
  2. Mater, Terra. “How This Turtle Saves 350 Species from Wildfires.” YouTube, 23 Apr. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7EYu6tafSQ. Accessed 27 May 2021.

Sam Burns

Editor in Chief

Sam has written and edited hundreds of articles since joining the EWC team in 2016. She writes about topics from the wonders of nature to the organizations changing the world and the simple joys in life! Outside of the EWC office, she’s a part-time printmaker, collector of knick-knacks, and taster of cheeses.