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Gopher Tortoise

Gopherus polyphemus

Listing Status

  • Federal Status: Candidate
  • FL Status: State-designated Threatened
  • FNAI Ranks: G3/S3 (Rare)
  • IUCN Status: VU (Vulnerable)

Appearance

The gopher tortoise is a moderate-sized, terrestrial turtle, averaging 23–28 cm (9–11 in) in length. The species is identified by its stumpy, elephantine hind feet and flattened, shovel-like forelimbs adapted for digging. This species of tortoise has a brown, gray, or tan upper shell (carapace), a yellow lower shell (plastron), and brown to dark gray skin (Florida Natural Areas Inventory 2001). The shell is oblong and generally tan, brown, or gray in coloration.  Gopher tortoises can live 40 to 60 years in the wild.

Gopher tortoises are ancient:  their ancestors are a species of land tortoise that originated in western North America some 60 million years ago. They are members of the Class Reptilia, Order Testudines, and Family Testudinidae.  Of five North American tortoise species (genusGopherus), the gopher tortoise is the only one that occurs east of the Mississippi River.

Habitat

gopher tortoise map

Gopher tortoises are found in the southeastern Coastal Plain, from southern South Carolina, southwest to extreme southeastern Louisiana (Florida Natural Areas Inventory 2001).  In Florida, tortoises occur in parts of all 67 counties, but prefer high, dry sandy habitats such as longleaf pine-xeric oak sandhills.  They also may be found in scrub, dry hammocks, pine flatwoods, dry prairies, coastal grasslands and dunes, mixed hardwood-pine communities, and a variety of disturbed habitats, such as pastures.

Gopher tortoises live in well-drained sandy areas with a sparse tree canopy and abundant low growing vegetation. They are commonly found in habitats such as sandhill, pine flatwoods, scrub, scrubby flatwoods, dry prairies, xeric hammock, pine-mixed hardwoods, and coastal dunes which have historically been maintained by periodic wild fires. When fire is suppressed in gopher tortoise habitat, small trees, shrubs, and brambles begin to grow making it difficult for the gopher tortoise to move around and eventually shade out the low growing plants that gopher tortoises eat.

During winter, tortoises are much less active; although on warm afternoons some individuals trudge to the earth's surface to bask on the sandy aprons of their burrows. A superb earth-mover, it lives in long burrows that offer refuge from cold, heat, drought, forest fires and predators. The record length for a burrow is over 47 feet long, however, the burrows average 15 feet long and 6.5 feet deep. The burrows maintain a fairly constant temperature and humidity throughout the year and protect the gopher tortoise and other species from heat, cold, drought, and predators. Burrows also act as a refuge from the periodic, regenerative fires that are required to maintain the quality of their habitat.

Gopher tortoises have adapted to living in dry habitats with frequent fire occurrence by digging burrows deep into the sandy soil. The absence of natural cycles of burning in pine forests spells hardship for tortoises. The dense vegetation (shrubs, brambles, small trees) that grows in a forest in the absence of fire shades out the tender herbs tortoises like to eat, and limits their food supplies. Fire is vital in maintaining many native ecosystems, like longleaf pine sandhills, where gophers live.

Behavior

Gopher tortoises are slow to reach sexual maturity, have a low fecundity, and a long life span. Females reach sexual maturity at 9–21 years of age, depending on local resource abundance and latitude; males mature at a slightly younger age. The breeding season is generally April–November. Nests are constructed (often in burrow mounds) from mid-May to mid-June, and only one clutch is produced annually. Clutch size is usually five to nine eggs, with an average of six. Predation on nests and hatchlings is heavy.

These reptiles feed on low-growing plants like wiregrass, broadleaf grasses, and legumes (bean family plants). They also eat prickly pear cactus, blackberries, paw-paws, and other seasonal fruits. In addition to needing open areas with abundant food, gopher tortoises require relatively deep, sandy soils for burrowing and sunny spots for laying eggs.

An amazing trait of the gopher tortoise is that it shares its burrow with more than 350 other species, including burrowing owls, Florida mice, indigo snakes, opossums, rabbits, gopher frog, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and gopher crickets. For this reason it is called a keystone species, so named because the upper stone in an arch, the keystone, supports the other stones to hold them in place. Animals which utilize the gopher tortoise burrows are known as commensal species. Since many commensal species depend on the burrows for survival, decreases in gopher tortoise populations result in a decline of other species.

Gopher tortoises dig deep burrows that average 15 feet long (4.6 meters) and 6.5 feet (two meters) deep.  These burrows provide protection from extreme temperatures, moisture loss, predators, and serve as refuges for 350-400 other species.  Because so many other animals depend on the burrows (commensals), gopher tortoises are referred to as a keystone species.

Gopher tortoises generally forage within 160 feet (48.8 meters) of their burrows but have been known to travel greater distances to meet their nutritional needs.  Gopher tortoises feed on a wide variety of plants including broadleaf grasses, wiregrass, grass-like asters, legumes, blackberries, and the prickly pear cactus.

Gopher tortoises are slow to reach sexual maturity, have low reproductive potential, but they have a long life span – 60 years or longer.  Females reach sexual maturity between 10-20 years of age.  The breeding season is generally between March and October.  Females lay five to nine eggs between May and June.  Nests are excavated in areas of abundant sunlight, especially in the sand mound that is located in front of a burrow.  Egg incubation lasts 80 to 90 days in Florida.  Hatchlings are capable of digging their own burrow, but may use other tortoises’ burrows instead (Gopher Tortoise Council 2000). 

Threats

The primary threat to the gopher tortoise is habitat loss. Habitat alteration, such as urbanization, generally occurs in the same high, dry habitats that the tortoise prefers. Lack of appropriate land management (especially controlled burning) has also contributed to population declines in areas where natural habitat remains. Other threats include road mortality from vehicles and illegal human predation.

Conservation and Management

The gopher tortoise is protected as a State-designated Threatened species by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule.  Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from FWC before they can move them.  The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists the gopher tortoise as a Candidate species for protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

The gopher tortoise has been regulated in Florida since 1972 and has been fully protected since 1988.  Despite the afforded protection, many gopher tortoise populations in Florida continue to decline.  The species’ Threatened status and the Gopher Tortoise Management Plan were approved in November 2007.  The objectives of the management plan are to:

  • Optimize gopher tortoise carrying capacity by appropriate habitat management on protected lands.
  • Increase protected gopher tortoise habitat.
  • Restock gopher tortoises to protected, managed, suitable habitats where they no longer occur or where densities are low.
  • Decrease gopher tortoise mortality on lands proposed for development.

References

Florida Natural Areas Inventory.  2001.  Field guide to the rare animals of Florida.
http://www.fnai.org/FieldGuide/pdf/Gopherus_polyphemus.PDF

Gopher Tortoise Council. 2000. About The Gopher Tortoise. Retrieved August 8, 2011, from
http://www.gophertortoisecouncil.org/