Gopher tortoises may be declining throughout the South, but you would never know it from the royal treatment they get at Reed Bingham State Park in south Georgia.
The prehistoric reptiles bask in the sun, dine on their favorite foods -- green grasses and prickly pear cactus -- and the males attract mates by wagging their heads like bobbling dashboard toys.
Now the park's managers are taking tortoise care to a new level. They have recruited more than 40 volunteers to count the turtles, check their health, help protect their eggs from predators, and help restore their longleaf pine ecosystem.
"We're setting an example not just for other state parks, but for private landowners," said Chet Powell, the park's interpretive ranger. "They can maintain the forest for gopher tortoises . . . and other creatures that are native to this ecosystem."
Gopher tortoises, which dig sloping burrows as deep as 40 feet, are found in the sandy uplands of southern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, most of Florida and small portions of South Carolina and Louisiana.
They are one of four remaining species of land turtles that originated in western North America about 60 million years and migrated to the Southeast. The others -- the Texas tortoise, the Bolson tortoise and the endangered desert tortoise -- are all found in the Southwest.
Because of population declines, mostly from habitat loss, gopher tortoises are protected throughout their range by state or federal laws, and they are Georgia's official state reptile.
Reed Bingham State Park, which covers about 1,600 acres near Adel, 200 miles south of Atlanta, is one of several parks in southern Georgia where visitors are likely to see gopher tortoises in the spring and summer.
During the winter, the turtles sleep in their cozy burrows, safe from predators, fires and freezing temperatures. The burrows also provide a haven for about 360 other creatures, including rattlesnakes, frogs, mice and bugs, which might not survive without the underground condos.
On Reed Bingham's Gopher Tortoise Nature Trail, visitors may see the males jousting for dominance during the mating season, although they seldom harm each other. Visitors may also see them trying to woo females by bobbing their heads and thumping their spade feet.
Reed Bingham embarked on its tortoise enhancement project about four years ago. Powell and other rangers noticed that armadillos were threatening tortoise propagation by destroying eggs. The South American invaders have also been a threat to sea turtle eggs along the coast.
"We realized that we were losing 80 to 90 percent of our eggs," Powell said. "It was a loss rate that was almost unbelievable. It was mainly due to the introduction of armadillos. Skunks and raccoons eat them, too, but they are part of the natural system. There are checks and balances."
Park workers began gathering tortoise eggs after they were laid in May and June, marking the sites with global-positioning devices and hatching eggs in a protected area. "The hatchlings are released exactly where they would have popped out of the egg," Powell said.
With the predator threat eased, park's rangers looked for other ways to nurture the tortoises. Workers thinned trees on about 11 acres last year. The area will be replanted with longleaf pines and wiregrass to create the ideal habitat. They also set periodic fires to keep hardwoods and other vegetation from choking the forest.
Trained for the first time this year, the volunteers will help restore the habitat and trudge into remote areas to count turtles and search for undiscovered colonies. The park has five known colonies.