Queen of Red Hill

Written by Hilary Swain, Jennifer Brown (Into Nature Films), and Betsie Rothermel

Archbold Biological Station has a new leading lady. She is the star of the film, ‘Queen of Red Hill,’ just released online at Archbold’s Vimeo and Youtube channels. Her name is Number 21, that is, Gopher Tortoise 21. At 60+ years old, she is one of the ‘grande dames’ of the Gopher Tortoise community living on the Red Hill at Archbold. She landed her role, vividly portraying her sandy, underground realm, because her story is Archbold’s story. She is emblematic of a tale told throughout wild Florida – loss of home, survival, and eventual recovery.

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Gopher Tortoise 21 foraging outside her burrow in fire-maintained sandhill at Archbold Biological Station. Photo credit: Into Nature Films.

The idea of a film arose as Dr. Betsie Rothermel, director of Archbold’s Herpetology Program, was wrapping up a 2-year study of Gopher Tortoises funded by the Disney Conservation Fund. “Of course we have scientific papers to publish,” said Rothermel, “but I know just how much Floridians love Gopher Tortoises, and I wanted to share our findings in a more engaging way for the public.” She wondered – since Disney Conservation Fund supported the research, maybe, if she asked, they would also help fund a film? To her delight, they agreed. Archbold then partnered with Jennifer Brown of Into Nature Films to bring the story of Archbold’s 50-year tortoise study to life. Based in Venus, Into Nature Films specializes in creating handcrafted, independent documentaries. Brown reflected, “I was excited to expand the original film concept portraying tortoise natural history to include the inseparable human history of Red Hill.”

No need for a tortoise talent scout. Thanks to intensive monitoring of Archbold tortoises and sandhill habitats, Dr. Rothermel knew right away which tortoise would be best-suited to tell this tale. “21 came to mind immediately,” she said. “She is the earliest recorded tortoise that is still known to be alive today in Archbold’s now 50-year-old Gopher Tortoise study. She was first recorded in Dr. Jim Layne’s study on May 11, 1968, soon after he was appointed as Research Director. As noted on the original data card, she was the 21st tortoise in the study, and we have data about her from many encounters during the intervening years.”

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The record card for Gopher Tortoise 21 documents observations made of her during the first years of the Archbold study. Photo credit: Archbold Biological Station.

By counting the annual growth rings on the ‘scutes’ on her shell, Dr. Layne’s research team estimated she must have been between 11 and 15 years old back in 1968. This method is only accurate until a tortoise is ~12-13 years old, thus the best guess is that 21 is at least 61 years-old. “I’m proud to admit she is about the same age as me,” said Dr. Hilary Swain, Executive Director at Archbold. “There is something magical about being face-to-face with a similar-aged animal as charismatic as a tortoise when you are privy to so many details of their life-history.”

‘Queen of Red Hill’ beautifully documents some of life’s successes and struggles for 21. She had a lucky break in 1980 when an Archbold scientist righted her after finding her stuck upside-down in the sand, probably tipped over while fighting. Nicole White, University of Georgia graduate student, recently used trail cameras at burrows to confirm that both female and male tortoises engage in aggressive ramming contests. Another particularly gratifying aspect of 21’s life story is how she has responded to recent sandhill habitat restoration. After decades without regular burning, her original ‘home’ had become overgrown and unusable. However, she moved back in almost immediately following restoration with fire in 2014, and was rewarded by quickly attracting new male suitors.

Filmmaker Brown reflected, “What I enjoyed most during production was being on a beautiful, fire-maintained sandhill with the tortoises. One day, while waiting for hours outside 21’s burrow, I got a front row seat to two males battling over her. Another time, an Eastern Coachwhip snake entered my frame, passing within one foot of the tiny 1- or 2-year-old tortoise I was filming.”

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Filmmaker Jennifer Brown places a camera inside a Gopher Tortoise burrow during a prescribed fire on Red Hill. Photo credit: Into Nature Films.

“One of my favorite moments during production,” Brown continued, “was watching a large tortoise on a foraging mission along a sandy path. I noticed a ripe, orange Hog Plum fruit just fallen along his projected pathway.” So she set up her GoPro camera and took cover behind a palmetto with fingers crossed. When she came back to the scene, the plum was gone, tortoise tracks everywhere (like mini-tank tracks in the sand), and her camera tipped over. The life of a filmmaker has many moments of dejection. This was not one of them. She looked through the video footage, and there was the tortoise, perfectly framed and in focus, relishing mouthfuls of juicy plum. She said, “These moments make all those other hot, sweaty days waiting for something to happen worthwhile.” Swain added, “Yes, Jen never cheats. She didn’t plant the plum. She doesn’t stage nature. She got the shot because she can almost think like a tortoise.”

“We are delighted with ‘Queen of Red Hill’ and its exploration of long-term science and conservation,” Swain continues. “We hope everyone will revel in the beauty of the scrub and savor the improbable life of 21, a tortoise that against all odds survived here for years to tell us her story.” Brown added, “I hope viewers gain empathy for these ancient tortoises living alongside us. And, like me, become humbled by what curious, committed people can accomplish for science and conservation.”

You can view ‘Queen of Red Hill’ online at https://vimeo.com/279384555 or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8X18LeBc4I.

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