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The Gopher Tortoise By Steffanie Munguia

The gopher tortoise can be found across many southeastern states, especially in areas where the terrain is sandy and dry throughout most of the year, but with plenty of green vegetation to eat.  Gopher tortoises got their name from their burrow building, digging their own homes in the ground, with tunnels that can sometimes go nearly 20 feet down and 30 feet long.  It is this burrow building that classifies gopher tortoises as keystone species, as the burrow may be used  by up to 300 animal species and nearly 60 can only be found in a gopher tortoise burrow.  Thus, if the gopher tortoise disappears, so do those 60 dependent species, much as if you remove the keystone of an arch, the entire building may topple.

So what is threatening the gopher tortoise? They have survived for thousands, maybe millions of years, yet only recently have their numbers experienced a serious decline.  The problems began with the early European settlers, whose lumber practices eliminated much of the land the tortoises used to roam freely.  The settlers also ate the tortoises themselves, a practice which continued (legally) well into the 20th century and continues still today illegally.  (Fun fact: During the Great Depression, the tortoises were called “Hoover chickens,” as many of the displaced people couldn’t afford to buy chicken and instead ate tortoises)  Another practice involved pouring gasoline down their burrows to drive out rattlesnakes, and the toxic fumes sometimes harmed the tortoise.  While hunting and pouring gas down the burrows of gopher tortoises has been outlawed, and restrictions have been placed on some logging practices, the biggest threat to the gopher tortoise has yet to be addressed.

The main threat to gopher tortoises in Florida is perhaps the biggest threat to any species in the sunshine state: habitat loss and fragmentation.  Florida has one of the most rapidly growing populations of the United States, and with such a population boom came a development growth spurt (though currently a little hampered by the economic conditions).  The prime developing habitat happens to be dry sandy flatwoods or scrubs, due to the stability of the soil.  There are, however, laws to protect the tortoises: developers must either relocate the tortoises properly (into equivalent land of certain size during conditions above 50°F for at least 3 nights in a row) or pay a take permit fee to eliminate the tortoises. Relocation fragments tortoise populations: if only one tortoise can be put on a given patch of land, it will have no tortoise with which to mate and will be forced to travel outside of its home range, which often means crossing busy roadways.  Many tortoises die in vehicle-related accidents. 

Unfortunately, very little is known about these tortoises, and their lives inside their burrows are a mystery to researchers.  One of the biggest issues right now is a public that is not aware of the tortoise’s very existence right beside them.  Many well-meaning people throw a tortoise that they “rescue” into a water body thinking that it is a turtle and it belongs in the water – but the tortoise is purely terrestrial, and will often drown in such a circumstance.  So what can you do if you come across a tortoise?  First, never stick your hand into a burrow to attempt to retrieve one that you just saw climb in.  Among those 300 other species are some rather venomous snakes that you probably want to avoid getting bit by.  If you come across a tortoise while hiking, Florida law actually prohibits approaching it, much less handling it.  Just let it be.  There is only one exception to the “no handling” rule and it is when a tortoise is in mortal peril.  For instance, if you see one crossing the road, and believe you can help it safely, try to do so.  First, attempt to direct traffic around the crossing tortoise so that you do not actually handle the tortoise directly.  If the tortoise is frozen in place in the middle of the roadway, simply pick it up and carry it in the direction it seemed to be heading.  If you find an injured tortoise or there is one burrowing in your backyard, contact FWC. 




Gopher Tortoise

Common name: Gopher Tortoise
Scientific name: Gopherus polyphemus
Habitat of choice: Dry sandy flatwoods or scrubs
Protection status: Threatened
Lifespan: Unknown

An adult gopher tortoise emerging from its burrow

A young gopher tortoise
As the young gopher tortoise gets older the yellow coloration dissapears.

Fun fact:

  • Tortoises may be left-handed or right handed; if the burrow turns to the left, the tortoise is left handed.

  • Gopher tortoises rarely drink from standing water instead they use their front flipper-like legs direct water to their mouth when it rains.

  • Nearly 300 species benefit from the Gopher Tortoise burrows.

Photos by R. Munguia


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