Efforts aimed at providing gopher tortoise outreach and education opportunities continue to gain ground in Mississippi. The Mississippi Museum of Natural Science recognized Gopher Tortoise Day on April 10th, which coincided with ‘Spring Into Nature’, an outdoor event held on the museum’s campus in Jackson.
Visitors mingled with exhibitors at their booths, learning about native wildlife on the appropriately beautiful day for an event celebrating nature. Guests were able to discuss gopher tortoises with the Coordinator of the Mississippi Natural Heritage Program, Dr. Nicole Hodges, who was armed with gopher tortoise brochures, handouts, coloring pages, a large display announcing Gopher Tortoise Day, and a live educational gopher tortoise at her booth. Prior to the event, Dr. Hodges created an educational video that was shared on Facebook inviting viewers to come and learn about the state-endangered tortoises on Gopher Tortoise Day. Zoologist Tom Mann and Botanist Heather Sullivan, also from the Heritage Program, accompanied Dr. Hodges at the booth, providing a unique opportunity for guests to receive information from multiple experts who study the tortoise and its natural ecosystem.
Other learning opportunities about gopher tortoises are readily available through the museum’s in-house events and programs, as well as through virtual programs. Outreach is paramount in providing the opportunity to learn for those who otherwise would not have access to such resources. The work of museum outreach educators, such as Sabrina Cummings and Jean Aycock, provides coverage across all counties in Mississippi where gopher tortoise habitat can be found. Workshops that feature live gopher tortoises, especially in areas in which tortoises can potentially be encountered, provide memorable educational experiences via face-to-face encounters with the state-endangered species.
Sabrina Cummings, whose district covers southwestern Mississippi, features her educational gopher tortoise Polly in nearly every program. She is in the unique position of having an amputee gopher tortoise in her charge; the female gopher tortoise had a front leg removed at the shoulder following injuries sustained during an animal attach and was deemed non-releasable. “The younger ages [elementary school] are most curious about her injury at first, but after learning about the cause, and then seeing her able to move successfully, they are thrilled,” Sabrina explains. “We always discuss their importance as a keystone species. Once the students see and understand the importance of the gopher tortoise, they are anxious to spread the word. Seeing the actual animal is always a plus.”
Sabrina observes that adults are keen to learn more about the tortoise as well: “Many have never seen an actual live animal while others remember them in abundance and love to tell stories of their experiences. I have been able to, in many cases, help the adults learn about living alongside tortoises. Helping displace many misconceptions like land being seized or land use dictated due to tortoise inhabitance.”
Jean Aycock's outreach district encompasses the heart of the state’s gopher tortoise range, southeastern Mississippi. Aycock is familiar with the impact on the public that an educational tortoise can generate in an in-person experience. She relates that her most memorable interactions when teaching about Mississippi’s gopher tortoises are with locals who have no idea that they are living in close proximity to these creatures, and those who immediately recognize them and start to tell stories.
Magnus, the educational tortoise that Jean works, with is originally from Florida. The impressive size of this male tortoise exceeds that of those found in Mississippi and occasionally provokes a humorous response. Jean explains, “his sheer size makes bringing him out an entertaining process - little kids especially are fascinated with him. At a recent program in Taylorsville, the kindergartners in the front row leapt to their feet to get a better look, and even the 'too cool' sixth graders were eager to see him!”
Outreach educators often find that many Mississippi residents living within the range of the tortoise are unaware of its presence. Jean aptly observes that “many kids, unless they are from a particularly outdoorsy family, may never have seen a turtle in person at all outside of a zoo. Getting to see a gopher tortoise up close and personal is an experience that I treasure being able to provide.”
Education is a driving factor in increasing public awareness and spurring interest in gopher tortoises, as well as imparting the significance of the conservation of gopher tortoises and the management of their habitat. Outreach programs, workshops, and events that incorporate educational resources are examples of opportunities that can create memorable experiences, which make an impact on the community and garner interest in the species. The work of those that take on the role of the educator can never be understated, and outreach efforts will continue to contribute to effective, long-term maintenance of tortoise presence throughout its range in Mississippi.