The Longleaf Savannas cover much of southeastern North America from Virginia to Texas, growing in a diverse range of landscapes including montane, rolling hills, flatwoods and sand hills. This ecosystem covered approximately 92 million acres throughout this region, from sea level to elevations around 2,000 feet. The Longleaf Savannas are often called the Fire Forest because they are fire adapted and in many cases would burn as frequently as every 2 to 3 years. This natural fire regime resulted in a savanna landscape dominated by vast grasslands with low density Longleaf Pines.
Early settlers during the 18th and 19th century noted vast areas of Longleaf Pine, but with the European settlers came land conversion. The ecosystem was replaced with towns, cities, roads, industrial forestry (dominated by Loblolly and Slash Pine), and agriculture. Along with these changes came the disruption of the natural fire regime which has resulted in less than 3% of Longleaf Pine ecosystems intact within its historic range. The dramatic decline of Longleaf Pine ecosystem threatens the reptiles and amphibians that depend on them such as Gopher Tortoises, Eastern Indigo Snakes, and Flatwoods Salamanders.
The Orianne Society works to conserve these species in the Altamaha River Corridor and the Gulf Coastal Plain through land protection, restoration and management; population restoration and reintroductions; research, inventory and monitoring; and education-outreach and training.
The southeast United States is recognized for its extraordinarily diverse species communities, especially within the Longleaf Pine ecosystem. As with many species, habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are the leading causes of species population declines within these systems. As Longleaf Pine ecosystems have declined because of development, fire suppression and poor forestry management, we’ve also seen a decline in the animals that inhabit these systems. In the southeast, The Orianne Society works to conserve and protect four focal species.
The Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake is the largest rattlesnake in the world which is largely dependent on the Longleaf Pine ecosystem. This species relies on the shelter of Gopher Tortoise burrows during the winter months. Unfortunately, much like the Eastern Indigo Snake, the Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake has suffered from the loss, fragmentation, and degradation of native habitats in which it lives. Habitat loss and fragmentation paired with human persecution has led to a sharp decline in the species population for this misunderstood species.
Read more about Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes.
The Eastern Indigo Snake has one of the largest, known home ranges of any snake in North America. The Eastern Indigo Snake is directly linked to the Gopher Tortoise, whose burrows provide shelter in the wintering months in the northern portion of its range. As suitable Gopher Tortoise habitat has declined in longleaf ecosystems, so have the tortoise populations and with it, the Eastern Indigo Snake.
Read more about the Eastern Indigo Snake.
The Gopher Tortoise is the only tortoise native to the Southeast, living in Longleaf Pine Savannas. It is known as a keystone species in this ecosystem due to its burrows providing shelter for more than 350 species. Recently, the Gopher Tortoise has experienced significant population declines, largely due to habitat destruction, fragmentation, and degradation.
Read more about Gopher Tortoises.
Complementing our efforts to protect the Gopher Tortoise, we are directing our efforts toward the conservation of a small, mostly-aquatic species, the Spotted Turtle. As with many species in the Longleaf Savanna area, habitat loss, habitat degradation and habitat fragmentation are the leading causes of Spotted Turtle population declines. Throughout the species’ range, wetlands formerly inhabited by Spotted Turtles have been drained and filled, or they have been rendered unsuitable by pollution, stream channelization, impoundments, eutrophication or other adverse impacts.
Read more about Spotted Turtles.
This area has extensive sandhills and tracts of Longleaf Pine used by Gopher Tortoises, Eastern Indigo Snakes, Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes and Spotted Turtles. In fact, the Altamaha River Corridor is part of the Altamaha-Ocmulgee-Ohoopee River Corridors Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area and is considered one of the most important habitats in the range of these species.
The Gulf Coastal Plain region includes the panhandle of Florida and portions of southern Alabama and Mississippi. Gopher Tortoise populations in this region have declined more significantly than other areas in the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem. The tortoise decline is one of the factors that resulted in Eastern Indigo Snakes going locally extinct in this region. We are part of a regional partnership to restore Eastern Indigo Snakes in this region.
The Longleaf Savannas are one of the most heavily degraded and threatened ecosystems in North America. The threats vary but a rapidly growing human population and infrastructure, plus the disruption of the natural fire regimes are critical issues for many of the reptiles and amphibians in the region.
The southeast has one of the fastest growing human populations in North America. This population growth has resulted in a great deal of habitat loss and fragmentation from the development of cities and towns and the road networks connecting them. In many of the remaining rural areas of the Longleaf Savannas, native Longleaf habitats have been converted to agriculture or commercial forestry land dominated by Slash and Loblolly Pine.
The Longleaf Savannas depend on frequent fire (as frequent as every 2-3 years) to maintain ecosystem function. But the loss of expansive areas with Longleaf Pine and native ground cover needed to carry fire across the landscape combined with an extensive network of human made fire breaks (e.g., roads) has resulted in a complete disruption in the natural disturbance regime that maintained this ecosystem. As fire no longer occurs naturally to maintain Longleaf Savanna habitats today, fire needs to be applied in a prescribed approach by people.
The Longleaf Pine forest supports some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in North America and invasive species pose a threat to a healthy understory. Plants such as Cogongrass, Bicolor Lespedeza, and Kudzu all pose threats that may displace native plants in the understories of these forests degrading the habitat quality.
Conservation in Action
We work with a broad group of partners to conserve the many rare reptile and amphibian species in the Longleaf Savannas. We also work with a broad group of partners to restore and manage habitats, monitor rare species, and reestablish extinct or declining populations.
The Longleaf Stewardship Center serves as a nexus to bring together volunteers and partners to train and implement prescribed fire, Longleaf Pine planting, and groundcover restoration. Our Gopher Tortoise Strike Team works throughout the region with private and public landowners to restore habitats.
Our biologists conduct long-term monitoring of rare and threatened species including Gopher Tortoises, Eastern Indigo Snakes, and Spotted Turtles.
We reestablish populations of rare species such as Gopher Tortoises and Eastern Indigo Snakes in areas they have gone extinct. These efforts include approaches such as captive breeding, reintroduction, head-starting, and translocations.