The gopher tortoise is known as a keystone species because so many other animals rely on its existence. This is why conservationists want to slow down its decline.

It's fairly small for a tortoise, but don't let its size fool you. They're powerful, like little bulldozers, and they spend a lot of time digging burrows for shelter and for nesting. The burrows can be twenty feet long and ten feet deep.

"If you look at their front feet they're actually modified to look like shovels. It's those two that they use to dig," says Dr. Josh Ennen, a conservation biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Ennen says the tunnels are also used by 400 other species including snakes, frogs, and burrowing owls. If gopher tortoises were to disappear, this could collapse the ecosystems where they live. Ennen says there could be more than one reason for their decline in the past 100 years.

"That could be due to isolation by distance, just that the gene pool is impeded," Ennen explains. "Or it could be geographical barriers such as mountain ranges or rivers."

Gopher tortoises can be found from Louisiana eastward to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Ennen and other researchers conducted a three year study of more than 900 tortoises from nearly 50 sites. The goal was to produce a genetic survey of the species.

The study, which appeared in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife management last December, revealed five distinct genetic groups instead of only two as previously thought. This information can be used to better manage the tortoise populations.

"Keeping that in mind and you want to keep the genetic integrity of the species together, you may want to look at where you can move these genetically unique tortoises," adds Ennen.

Proper management of these genetically different groups can preserve the species and ensure it's survival.

"What we know through the literature, the scientific literature, is that if you have more genetic diversity you're more robust to change," says Ennen.

The gopher tortoise is the only tortoise found in the Southeast. It eats only plants and fruits and is one of only four types of tortoises found in the U.S. If you want to see gopher tortoises up close, plan a visit to the Tennessee Aquarium. Two of them live there, and they arrived in 2009.

MORE INFORMATION | Gopher Tortoises

MORE INFORMATION | Dr. Ennen's study