Tuesday, as a curious group of spectators gathered around a plastic box to view two tiny tortoise hatchlings, 2-year-old Adrian Seshadri had a question.
"Where did their heads go?"
"They are hiding," said his mother, Erika Seshadri, a wildlife biologist. "They're just a little bit nervous."
Moving day can give anyone the jitters, and gopher tortoises are no different.
The pair were part of a pod — a whole community located in underground burrows in a sandy lot within the Keystone Springs subdivision. Deeb Family Homes would be starting construction on a new house soon and that meant the current residents would have to go.
Construction of the future home was permitted under Florida's former "incidental take" policy that allowed the tortoises to be crushed or buried alive, but the developer collaborated with a group of wildlife specialists to save these members of the threatened species.
"Normally, activists and developers are on opposite sides of environmental issues, but our goal is to work with developers on getting these animals off their property," said Carissa Kent, a gopher tortoise activist leading the team of wildlife experts with the Humane Society of the United States.
The project was made possible through funding by Seshadri and Dr. Sharon Cook, both members of the Florida State Council for the HSUS.
Kent and crew spent all day Tuesday carefully excavating the burrows to find and capture the gentle creatures.
"We have a healthy population here," said Kent. "They have great weights. Great looks. It's a perfect habitat. There is no predation and the land offers lots of Bahia and Mexican clover for them to forage on."
With their flattened forelimbs and long claws, gopher tortoises are small but powerful earth-moving machines, with underground burrows that can stretch 40 feet or more. In addition to providing a home for the gopher tortoises, the burrows offer mice, snakes, opossums, rabbits, gopher frogs and other species protection from heat, cold, drought, forest fires and other predators.
Gopher tortoises are a keystone species —- when their numbers decline, other dependent species wane as well. They and their oval-shaped burrows are protected under state law.
Nowadays, tortoises must be relocated before development takes place. Property owners must obtain permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Deeb purchased the land from a previous developer, and the existing permits were grandfathered in under the old law, which would have allowed the tortoises to be entombed below the home's foundation. But when officials from the wildlife commission informed Deeb about the tortoise rescue group, a partnership was forged.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
"There was no reason to kill them," said Scott Walsingham, field superintendent for Deeb Family Homes. "We could have gone in there with a loader and covered them up, but it didn't seem like the right thing to do."
By day's end, all the burrows were searched and 18 tortoises were collected. Wednesday, they were transported in a white Chevy Suburban to the Nokuse Plantation, a permanently protected 48,000-acre preserve in the Florida Panhandle.
"Eighteen is a huge number for one community," Kent said. "We've prevented a successful breeding population from being buried alive."
Kent estimates that she's saved close to 3,000 gopher tortoises in the past six years — about 2,700 of those through her partnership with the Humane Society.
But her triumphs aren't just measured in numbers saved.
"We had neighbors and other interested parties stop by and we were able to educate them on Florida's ecosystem," Kent said. "We may even get some more donors.
"Today was an absolute success on all levels."
Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at email@example.com.