In my email I said, “Betsie--this is one of the best, if not the best, nature videos I have ever seen. Excellent photography and narration, not to mention full of natural history information about tortoises, habitats, biodiversity, the perils of overdevelopment, the importance of fire, and the history of how the biological station came to be.”
Betsie Rothermel, a former colleague at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab, is now a research biologist at Archbold Biological Station in southern Florida. The 20-minute video (Queen of Red Hill on vimeo.com) stars Number 21, a 61-year-old gopher tortoise first captured on the property in 1968.
This superb presentation -- environmental education at its finest -- recounts the history of a site that escaped the overdevelopment inflicted on so much of Florida. The storyline also highlights people I consider environmental heroes. John A. Roebling II bought the property in the 1930s with the intent of building a winter home. Although he came from a family of industrialists (his father built the Brooklyn Bridge), he neither developed the site nor turned it into orange groves like so much of the surrounding area. Roebling left the natural beauty intact. Much of his environmental inspiration came from his wife, Margaret, a botanist who wanted to preserve wild areas. After her death from tuberculosis, Roebling donated the property to Richard Archbold in 1941. Archbold was an explorer and son of a Standard Oil Co. president. He took the environmental preservation approach even further, not only protecting the land in its natural state but also hiring Jim Layne from Cornell University as research director of the site.
Layne, a scientist and conservationist, began conducting ecological studies on gopher tortoises, the large land turtles of the Southeast that dig deep burrows underground. Tortoises retreat to burrows at night and during cold weather or any time they need to rest in a protected area. Females lay their eggs in the mouth of a burrow. Layne marked tortoises he found on the biological station property with individual codes so that when they were recaptured he could determine how far they had traveled and how much they had grown. Young tortoises can be aged by counting the annual rings on the scales on the shell, like tree rings. Number 21 was a female he estimated to be at least 11 years old in 1968 when she was first captured.
In the video, Number 21 is more than just a pretty face. She is the focal point of the narrative, which offers facts about southern Florida’s sand ridge habitat, the array of plant and animal life forms that thrive in the natural habitats and the role that fires play in keeping the landscape from developing a tree canopy. Tortoises and many other regional species thrive in open scrub habitat but eventually disappear when fire is artificially prevented.
Today’s heroes at the station are Betsie, the current executive director Hilary Swain and other scientists who conduct first-class ecological research and educate others about wildlife and habitat conservation of this fascinating natural environment. They continue to archive and build on historical ecological information gathered before the state’s population was nearing 21 million people. What were the habitats and biodiversity of the area like in previous centuries? Such research opportunities are becoming rare, in Florida and many other regions of the country.
I last saw Dick Archbold in the mid-1970s, which I remember well because I caught my first indigo snake as we drove onto the station grounds to join him and Jim Layne for Thanksgiving dinner. Two years later, the indigo snake was placed on the federally threatened and endangered species list. On another trip, Jim showed me tortoises he was studying in the sandy scrub habitat, and for all I know, I may have seen Number 21 when she was only 15 years old. I hope she will still be around on my next visit.
Whit Gibbons, professor emeritus of ecology, University of Georgia, grew up in Tuscaloosa. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Send environmental questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.