How to Identify a Gopher Tortoise
Gopher tortoises are often misidentified. Learn how to identify our only native tortoise with our guide below.
Gopher Tortoise Characteristics
Gopher tortoises have stumpy elephant-like back legs which are not webbed. Their front feet are shaped like shovels for digging burrows. Gopher tortoises also have a special bony plate on the front of their shells directly behind the head. This plate is called a nuchal scute.
Gopher Tortoise Life Stages
Gopher Tortoises go through four stages during their life cycles: Hatchling, Juvenile, Sub-adult, and Adult. We determine what stage they are in primarily by measuring how long the top of their shell is, which we call the carapace length. Their appearance also changes as they age.
The first stage in a tortoise’s life after hatching is called hatchling, which is when a tortoise is less than 2.5” (<60 mm) in carapace length. When a tortoise grows past that size but still remains less than 5 inches (130 mm) in carapace length, it is classified as a juvenile tortoise. During these two stages, the tortoise’s shell is soft and yellow or orange in coloration. The tortoise’s scutes, which are the individual bony plates on a tortoise shell, will each have a dark ring around them.
After the tortoise passes the juvenile stage, a tortoise becomes a sub-adult until it reaches sexual maturity. Subadults range from about 5” (130 mm) to 7” (180 mm) in carapace length. A subadult gopher tortoise’s shell is hardening and will be more uniform in coloring than a juvenile tortoise shell. Their skin is dark.
Gopher tortoises are considered adults when they can reproduce. This can take as long as 10-20 years. Adults have a carapace length over 7” (180 mm), a uniformly gray to brown hardened shell, and dark skin.
Commonly Confused Species
Florida’s native and nonnative turtle species are commonly misidentified as gopher tortoises. You can tell these other species apart from gopher tortoises by looking for the characteristics listed here in our guide.
Box turtles have a hinge on the bottom side of their shells (the plastron). This hinge allows box turtles to completely seal themselves inside of their shells. Gopher tortoises can retreat further into their shell but will not be able to close any part of their shell so they will be visible.
Aquatic turtles have webbed feet to help them swim. In contrast, gopher tortoise feet are designed for digging in sandy environments and are not webbed.
Sulcata Tortoise (aka African Spurred Tortoise)
While Florida has only one native tortoise species, several nonnative tortoise species are found in Florida. The sulcata tortoise, also called an African spurred tortoise) is the most encountered. This exotic species has a flared outer shell and large forearm spurs. They also lack the bony plate (nuchal scute) found on the shell directly behind the head of gopher tortoises.
Juvenile sulcata tortoises have the same yellow or orange shell coloration as juvenile gopher tortoises, but share the same distinguishing characteristics as adult sulcata tortoises (forearm spurs, flared shell and lack of nuchal scute).