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How to Identify a Gopher Tortoise

Gopher Tortoise walking on recently burned ground

Gopher tortoises are often misidentified. Learn how to identify our only native tortoise with our guide below.  

Gopher Tortoise Characteristics

Photo of gopher tortoise pointing out characteristics (Stumpy elephant-like back legs, unwebbed feet, shovel-like front feet, and broad head and non-projecting snout)
Gopher tortoise photo highlighting the bony plate (scute) directly behind the head of a gopher tortoise

Gopher tortoises have a bony plate called the nuchal scute directly behind the head. 

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

FWC biologist measuring the carapace length of a tortoise using calipers.

FWC biologist measuring the carapace length of a tortoise using calipers.

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 tortoises 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.  

Subadult gopher Tortoise sitting in sand


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

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.   

Underside (Plastron) of box turtle showing hinged shell completely closed.

Aquatic Turtles

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. 

Sulcata Tortoise walking on grass

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).