Not slowing down

Not slowing down

Retired PHHP faculty member works to protect threatened tortoises

The gopher tortoise, an ancient species found east of the Mississippi, is facing a severe population decline as it loses its habitat to development. In Florida and across the Southeast, the gopher tortoise is considered a threatened species. But these gentle reptiles, known for their expert digging, have found a friend in Michael Tuccelli, Ph.D., who is developing a sanctuary for them on his 55-acre property west of St. Augustine, Fla.

When Tuccelli retired from UF in 2012 as a senior lecturer of American Sign Language in the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, he knew he wanted to keep active.

“My dad was always active every day of his life and walked five miles daily until the day he died at the age of 98,” Tuccelli said. “With him as my inspiration, I set out to find something to stay busy with.”

Tuccelli found his project in a tract of land located off State Road 207 in St. Johns County. The property encompasses 45 acres of high, dry ground and 10 acres of wetlands. Moccasin Creek, cypress trees and several stands of live oak trees border the property. Armed with hand tools and a chain saw, Tuccelli and his wife Maureen and stepdaughter Nichole cleared dense brush, removed tree-choking vines and tore down barbed wire fences left over from the property’s days as a cattle ranch in the 1950s.

“Little by little we were able to clear enough to build a barn and a house and plant potatoes, peanuts and corn,” Tuccelli said.

Tuccelli’s local agricultural center suggested the property would also make an ideal home for gopher tortoises, which can live up to 80 years in the wild.

“We made an agreement — verbal at this point and to be put in writing later — that 40 or so acres will be permanently endowed for gopher tortoise sanctuary purposes,” Tuccelli said. “Ultimately the state will relocate tortoises displaced by construction. The grounds can be used for educational purposes by conservation groups and perhaps research into gopher tortoise habitat.”

To make his land hospitable for gopher tortoises, Tuccelli will plant longleaf pines and wiregrass, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will conduct controlled burning to thin dense tree stands that block sunlight and impede the tortoises’ movement.

Retirement, and farm life, suit Tuccelli fine.

“Truth be told, my wife tells people the only reason I got the place was because I’ve always wanted to have a tractor!”