Florida Gopher Turtle
Basic Facts About Gopher Tortoises
Gopher tortoises are so named because of their ability to dig large, deep burrows. These burrows are widely used by other species throughout the ecosystem, making gopher tortoises a keystone species with a pivotal role to play in their native community.
Gopher tortoises have shovel-like front legs that help them to dig, and their back legs are strong and sturdy. As with all turtles, the undersides of males’ shells are concave, distinguishing them from females. Male gopher tortoises also have longer tails than females and extended shells under their chins that they use for ramming or butting, but females are larger in size. As adults they are mostly brownish gray with a yellowish, tan underside. In hatchlings, the scute (the polygon shapes covering the shell) are bright yellow with brown edges.
Gopher tortoises are herbivores. They eat grasses, the flowers, fruits and leaves of herbaceous plants and shrubs like asters and legumes, daisies, clover, peas, cat briar, blueberries and palmetto berries, as well as stinging nettle, prickly pear cactus and pine needles. Because they get water from plants and dew, tortoises rarely drink water.
The majority of the remaining gopher tortoises are in the state of Florida where the population was estimated in 2003 to be under 800,000, but in steep decline.
Habitat & Range
The gopher tortoise lives in dry, sandy uplands, such as oak-sandhills, scrub, pine flatwoods and coastal dunes of the southeastern United States. It is the only tortoise in the eastern part of the country. Human activities eliminated gopher tortoises from a significant portion of their historic range, but they still occur in Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, with the majority of the remaining population in Florida.
Gopher tortoises are one of the few species of tortoise that dig burrows. These burrows can be up to ten feet deep and 40 feet long, and are as wide as the length of the tortoise that made it. The burrow is integral to the tortoise’s survival. It provides shelter from the sun, stable temperature and relative humidity, protection from predators, a site for laying eggs under the sandy soil at the burrow mouth, and it is a crucial refuge for the tortoise and other species that are adapted to the fires that naturally occur in the tortoise’s native ecosystem. Other species that use the gopher tortoise burrows are called commensals, and they include nearly 400 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects, such as the eastern indigo snake, Florida mouse, gopher frog, burrowing owl and gopher cricket.
Another aspect of gopher tortoise behavior that benefits the native community is how it feeds. The tortoise “prunes” the plants it eats, usually leaving a healthy plant ready to send out new nutritious growth, while the seeds are fertilized and distributed in the scat throughout its home range.
In the spring, gopher tortoises engage in mating behavior. The male visits the burrows of females in its colony. Communicating through head bobbing, shell nipping and rubbing of pheromones from scent glands on his legs leads to mating. The female digs a nest at the mouth of her burrow or another sunny site where she buries ping-pong-ball-sized eggs that hatch about 3 months later. Eggs and hatchlings that escape being eaten by raccoons, skunks, dogs and other predators may spend the first winter in their mother's burrow or protected beneath fallen leaves and soil, eventually creating burrows of their own. Depending upon what latitude they live at, the tortoises will not become reproductively mature until they are 10 to 25 years old.
Mating season: April - June
Gestation: 80-100 days
Clutch size: 3-15 eggs
Weird and Funky Facts About Gopher Tortoises
You’re probably fairly familiar with the humble tortoise—after all, it was a tortoise who handily beat the hare with its slow and methodical determination during Aesop’s infamous race.
But there’s so much more to this land-dwelling reptile than an ancient fable—and the gopher tortoise is no exception. A medium-size land turtle with large, stumpy hind legs, the gopher tortoise can be found in all 67 counties in Florida and are considered a “keystone species” because they are the backbone of their local plant and wildlife community. Without the gopher tortoise, the populations of more than 350 wildlife species that seek refuge or live in the burrows would be greatly reduced, if not eliminated.
Frost Science has four gopher tortoises that have all been rehabilitated at the museum. You can meet them on Tuesday, April 10 in honor of Florida Gopher Tortoise Day.
In celebration of this special day, here are six fun facts to help you get to know Florida’s only native tortoise.
- The gopher tortoise has shovel-like front legs that it uses to build burrows in sandy soil as home and refuge. Some burrows have been recorded at more than 20 feet deep and 50 feet long!
- Although it might be tempting to give these gentle creatures a home, Florida laws prohibit keeping them as pets. Gopher tortoises are considered a threatened species and should be left alone in the wild.
- The gopher tortoise missed hanging out with the dinosaurs by a good five million years. They belong to a group of land tortoises that originated in western North America nearly 60 million years ago—the last dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago.
- Unlike humans, female gopher tortoises are generally larger than their male counterparts.
- Male gopher tortoises can get downright competitive when it comes to searching for a mate, often ramming into each other, pushing, bobbing their heads and even pooping.
- Although they generally love to munch on leafy, low-growing plants and veggies, gopher tortoises are opportunistic eaters and will scoop up anything they can find including dead insects, small crabs and other carrion.
To find out more about gopher tortoises and Florida Gopher Tortoise Day, visit gophertortoisedayfl.com.
In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as Threatened. Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law. Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from the FWC before capturing and relocating tortoises.