Gopher Tortoises

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Order: Testudines
Family: Testudinidae
Genus: Gopherus
Life Span: 40-60 years
Population: 700,000
Species Status: Threatened

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Gopher Tortoises can live up to 60 years in the wild, but the oldest one ever recorded is over 75 years old!

Welcome to the world of Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus Polyphemus)! These adorable and important keystone reptiles can be found throughout a small range in the most Southeastern United States. Gopher Tortoises are also the only native tortoise species in North America found West of the Mississippi River. They are one of the oldest species on earth, and first evolved over 60 million years ago! Gopher Tortoises are relatively small, and only grow up to about 9 – 11 inches long, and weigh between 9-13lbs when fully grown. Gopher tortoises have a signature dark brown or grey color, and short stocky legs for burrowing deep into the sandy soil of their habitat.

Geography

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Gopher Tortoises spend up to 80% of their time in their burrows.

Gopher Tortoises are only found in few states in the Southeast region of the United States. These states are Georgia, and mostly Florida. Their historic region used to also include Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, but they are almost entirely extinct in those states. Gopher Tortoises live in very fast drying, sandy environments such as pine flats, oak hammocks, coastal dunes, and prairies that used to be abundant in much of their region. Unfortunately, much of these areas are being destroyed and developed. Gopher Tortoises love this habitat because it allows them to build their signature burrows, which they dig deep into the sandy soil. Gopher tortoise burrows tend to be 6ft deep and 15ft long with multiple entrances and exits, but some have been documented as long at 40ft!

What are Gopher Tortoises?

Gopher tortoises are small, stocky, and dark in color, and are a very important keystone species. Keystone species are animals in an environment that other species depend on. Gopher Tortoises are an important keystone species thanks to their very deep burrows, which they share with up to 350 different species like pine snakes, burrowing owls, mice, and more! Gopher tortoises have very muscular and shovel like front arms, which are very important for digging their deep burrows, and they have a thick bone shell that grows with them throughout their lives. The top layer of their shell is made of little ridged sections called scutes, which are dark in color and made of keratin. Tortoise scutes will form rings, similar to tree rings, which can help tell the age of a tortoise and how much they grow each year.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Gopher Tortoises are fully grown by the age of 10.

Behavior

Although Gopher Tortoises share their burrows often, they tend to be solitary and do not live with other tortoises. The only time Gopher Tortoises will seek other Tortoises out is during breeding season. Gopher tortoises spend much of their time, about 80%, in or around their burrows and do not stray far unless absolutely necessary. They tend to stay within 160 ft of any of their burrow’s entrances. They are also ectothermic which means that they are cold-blooded and rely on the sun for warmth, and when they are not foraging they can also be seen basking at the entrance of their burrows for warmth. Gopher tortoises are very calm and easy going, but when they feel threatened they are able to squeeze into their shell, and shutting their armored front arms closed like a door to protect themselves.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Gopher tortoise burrows are so important, they even house the rare Eastern indigo snake!

Diet

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Gopher Tortoises eat about 5% of their body weight in foraging each day.

Gopher Tortoises are herbivores, meaning they only eat vegetation. They most commonly feed on the low-lying grasses and plants around their burrows, which can include over 300 different native species of plant. These plants even include things like blackberries, blueberries, prickly pear and more. Instead of teeth, Gopher Tortoises have a sharp beak that allows them to cut through vegetation quickly with each bite. Gopher tortoises play another important role in the environment because as they forage and eat the seeds of many different plants, even some endangered plants and berries, they help to spread the seeds through their excrement, which helps the seeds in their germination process.

Reproduction

Gopher Tortoises meet to mate during breeding season each year, which lasts from March to October, and after males and females have parted ways, female Tortoises will lay a group of 5 – 9 ping pong ball sized eggs, called a clutch, between May and July. The female Tortoises lay their clutch of eggs in a small nest that sits near the front of their burrow, where it can be warmed by the sun. The eggs will then incubate for 80 – 110 days until they hatch. When they hatch the baby tortoises, or hatchlings, are only about 1.5 inches long but will venture off on their own without any parental care. They will then create their own tiny burrow to live in as they continue to grow, until they reach maturity at around 10 years old.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Gopher Tortoise hatchlings grow very slowly, and only grow about 1 inch per year.

Threats

Today, the biggest danger to the Gopher Tortoise populations is the loss of their habitats and having their territories broken up into smaller pieces where developments are destroying their burrows. As cities grow and more land is used for development, there is less space for Gopher Tortoises to live. This makes it harder for them to find enough food and puts them at huge risk from being injured by people, and getting hit by cars when they try to search for new habitat. Gopher Tortoises unfortunately often get hit by cars while trying to cross highways and roads and vehicle strikes often cause the most deaths each year. Gopher Tortoises are also slow to reproduce and once they hatch many do not survive to adulthood. Unfortunately, without Gopher Tortoises creating their burrows, many other animals are also threatened and have no place to live.

Population

The Gopher Tortoise population has been declining due to rapid development of much of the beautiful flatlands of Florida, Georgia, and other states where they used to be abundant. Since 2003, their population dropped from 800,000 to 700,000 individual tortoises, which is less than 1/3 of their population a century ago. They are currently labelled as vulnerable/threatened species and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. However, with their population declining so quickly, their status needs to be changed for them to be awarded more protection.

How to Help

Gopher Tortoises need your help!
Here are some ways you can contribute to protecting this amazing species.
If you see a Gopher Tortoise in its natural environment, including your yard, leave them be and be excited to have such an important neighbor sharing your space! Do not try to pet or pick up these animals, this can put them at risk for being injured. Gopher Tortoises also have an ancient GPS in their head which allows them to remember where food and water is. If they are moved somewhere they are unfamiliar with, they will either starve, or attempt to return to their original habitat which could cause them to be hit by a car on their way.
If you see development happening near a Gopher Tortoise burrow, call your local Wildlife Authorities! Development and construction is not allowed to happen within a 25ft radius of the burrow, if you see a burrow being threatened or destroyed, contact the proper authorities who will come to the site and make sure the Tortoise and their burrow is safe, and if necessary, move the tortoise to a safe location for rehabilitation into a new, safer, environment.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? If you have a Gopher Tortoise burrow in your yard, you are helping protect up to 300 different species!