The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is protected by conservation policy throughout its range. Efforts to protect the species from further decline demand detailed understanding of its habitat requirements, which have not yet been rigorously defined. Current methods of identifying gopher tortoise habitat typically rely on coarse soil and vegetation classifications, and are prone to over-prediction of suitable habitat. We used a logistic resource selection probability function in an information-theoretic framework to understand the relative importance of various environmental factors to gopher tortoise habitat selection, drawing on nationwide environmental datasets, and an existing tortoise survey of the Ft. Benning military base. We applied the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) as an index of vegetation density, and found that NDVI was strongly negatively associated with active burrow locations. Our results showed that the most parsimonious model included variables from all candidate model types (landscape features, topography, soil, vegetation), and the model groups describing soil or vegetation alone performed poorly. These results demonstrate with a rigorous quantitative approach that although soil and vegetation are important to the gopher tortoise, they are not sufficient to describe suitable habitat. More widely, our results highlight the feasibility of constructing highly accurate habitat suitability models from data that are widely available throughout the species' range. Our study shows that the widespread availability of national environmental datasets describing important components of gopher tortoise habitat, combined with existing tortoise surveys on public lands, can be leveraged to inform knowledge of habitat suitability and target recovery efforts range-wide.
- Gopher tortoise
- Gopherus polyphemus
- Habitat selection
- Habitat suitability
- Resource selection probability function