gopher tortoise, © Cindy McIntyre

5 Fun Facts about Gopher Tortoises

Florida celebrates nature’s ancient ecosystem engineers

The gopher tortoise has been roaming the upland forests, sandhills and coastal dunes of the deep south for thousands of years. Check out just a few fascinating facts about these amazing reptiles:

“Scrubby” is a good thing

Gopher tortoises live in “scrub” habitat, which are areas of forests, dunes, or other places where the soil is sandy (all the better for digging) and the trees aren’t too close together. When trees grow in tall bunches, the shade they create can make it harder for certain ground-covering plants like grasses, flowers, and cacti to grow – which is exactly what gopher tortoises like to eat.

Gopher tortoise burrow, © Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission

Thirsty? Not so much.

Because gopher tortoises eat so much greenery – from grasses and berries to stinging nettles and prickly pear cacti – they get most of the water they need from those plants. They rarely need to go out of their way to drink water, and usually only do so during a drought, when water-storing plants may not be as plentiful.

 

Ecosystem Engineers

Gopher tortoises are so named because of their ability to dig large, deep burrows. They have specialized shovel-like front legs that help them to dig, and their back legs are strong and sturdy. They use them to accomplish some complex feats of engineering. One gopher tortoise burrow excavated in the Florida panhandle was recorded at 65 feet long and 26 feet deep!

Gopher tortoise burrow, © Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission

Good Neighbors

Gopher tortoise burrows are widely used by other species throughout the ecosystem, making these tortoises a keystone species with a pivotal role to play in their native community. Their burrows are like subterranean villages, providing a home for more than 350 different species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and even birds. These animals depend on the burrows for survival, using them for shelter from predators, and as temporary refuge from fires, which are a natural part of the landscape in these in upland ecosystems. Many of the species that use gopher tortoise burrows are protected at the state or federal level, like the Eastern indigo snake, burrowing owl, Florida mouse and gopher frog.

Burrow wildlife, © Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission

Old and Wise

Many species of tortoises have astounding longevity, and gopher tortoises are no exception. These reptiles can live as long as 60 years or more! Because they are so long-lived, they can take 16 years or more to mature and reproduce, which means that every tortoise is precious for its population to grow and the species to persist.

Gopher tortoise, © Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission

 

Historically, there were so many gopher tortoises across the southeast that Native Americans commonly used their shells for baskets, pots, and even helmets. As recently as the 1930s, they were still so common that people often harvested them for food. But today, with so much of its native habitat gone to development and broken up by roads, the gopher tortoise is declining. It is listed as threatened here in Florida, which represents the largest portion of its range, and in Georgia, where is is the official state reptile.

How Can You Help?

From now through May and June, gopher tortoises are increasingly active, leaving their underground burrows in search of spring greenery to eat and, in many cases, seek out a mate. If you see one trying to cross a road, you may be able to help get it out of harm’s way. If it’s safe for you to do so, picking the tortoise up and place it on the roadside in the direction it was heading. Just don’t put this terrestrial animal in the water! Even though they can be found in dunes near the ocean, they cannot swim a stroke.

Next week, Florida is celebrating its only native tortoise (the only native tortoise anywhere east of the Mississippi, in fact) by declaring April 10th to be the official Gopher Tortoise day! If you live in Florida, look for local events to get involved. And even if you don’t, spend some time learning about these unique creatures, and talking to others about how important it is that we all work to protect them and the habitat they rely on.

14 Responses to “5 Fun Facts about Gopher Tortoises”

  1. Richard Spotts

    Mike, many thanks for your diligent and effective work on behalf of gopher tortoise conservation!

    • AnnMarie Schaefer

      Excellent information!! Turtles are so
      Interesting. Thank you for the footage and information!

  2. Jackie

    Last week a gopher tortoise dug a burrow in our backyard located in Temple Terrace, Florida, just across the street from the Hillsborough River. Is there anything we should do other than leave it alone?

  3. Jerri Greene

    We need your support in Palm Beach County. The county is trying to take away land from John Prince Park to build a spring training camp for the Atlanta Braves.
    The area of land they are trying to take a way is where our gopher turtles habitat is. The park is a public park that was deeded to the county for park and forest only. This area of the park is also the habitat for the horned owl. We are in desperate need of your help to prevent this from happening. We do not need another spring training camp (2 in Palm Beach County already).

  4. Dun

    When my children were small and we lived in south Florida, we had a gopher tortoise (also called gopher turtles) living in our back yard. He lived there quietly for the most part, and often making a noise like a rattle snake, as I hung my laundry out. My children were in grade school. We also took in birds that fell out of nest when they could not be placed back in the nest, and baby wild rabbits. When we moved away from Florida, we called wildlife in our area to find out what to do with all these animals. They helped us find other people interested in these projects. After many years, I have returned to Florida and live on a 32 acre ranch. Because of age, we no longer have any animals except wild life on the ranch, including, gopher tortoises, rabbits, alligators, raccoons, many birds and hawks, otter and a couple ponds, deer including one that has only 3 legs. I have watched her raise at least 3 fawns in the last few years. What a pleasure! No hunting on this land and the ponds do not have fish, wish they did!

  5. Beverly J. Morais

    Estarei sempre disposta a colaborar. Precisamos muito de pessoas como vocês que buscam salvar as espécies tão perseguidas por todos. Sim, assino e estou de acordo.

  6. Deanna Freet

    I am living on a secluded 20 acres in Orange Springs Florida. I have witnessed the mating of these majestic tortoises. There are as many as 5 burrows that I have stumbled upon. 3 tortoises are at least 14 inches long or better. They are extremely fast moving about. I will not allow anyone to approach or disturb them. I will send an update as they occur. I should be able to update the status of how many young survive in 3 months or so. Thank you for this amazing opportunity to share this information. It is truly a pleasure to watch and be apart of this wildlife history. sincerely, Deanna Freet.

  7. Luke Lauren & Rachel Overstreet

    We have spent 2 weeks @ our Nanna&Pappy’s home in Gainestown Al this summer. We have enjoyed watching & putting our names,date & # on the gophers. We discovered several new burrows. Enjoyed your article it has a lot of great information.

  8. Jackie M.

    We just moved onto some family property in Grand Bay, AL. We have found 5 or 6 burrows, 2 close to the house. We have seen one adult and 2 smaller ones. We love to go out and check on them. Very cool creatures!

  9. Virginia Graham

    Fifty one years ago this coming November a pet shop owner here in Hamilton New Zealand imported crates of gopher tortoises from Florida USA. My husband and I bought a female (for £5) whom we were told was probably about 10 -12 years old. We still have her! She has the run of our back garden which is safely fenced, goes into hibernation from about our Easter until late September/early October and has now been taken to school for ‘morning talks’ by two generations. Some years ago despite a chaste life she laid six eggs so we tried to pair her up with a male whom we located in New Plymouth. While he was very keen to mate she wasn’t at all obliging and would dig a burrow to escape his advances. So after a year of unrequited affection poor Thomas the tortoise went back to New Plymouth. We called her Hardy to start with (for her hard shell) but once the eggs were laid she became Mrs Hardy. Strange to think that she has thrived so far from her birthplace. We think she is wonderful and a very significant part of our family’s history.

  10. david purkey

    A year ago a female move in to my side yard and 2 months ago a male borrowed in and started courting her. Yesterday i think they successfully mated. The timing of the season for mating seams wrong so i do not know, time will tell.

  11. Phyllis Crotty

    We live in Palm Valley Florida. Our property backs up to woods. Over the years, 8 gopher tortoises have made our yard their home. We have every size. Two days ago I found 2 babies in our yard. One is already digging it’s burrow. The other one is alive, but not moving. I have been watching it, but it has not attempted to dig, or move. Should I do something to help it? Is there anyone who can offer advice?

  12. Brian Woodard

    Growing up in extreme SE MS, I was taught to call many things by the “wrong” name, among those were “gophers”. Today, at 58 years young I learned the old folks weren’t wrong after all. We used to play with these critters and feared what might be lurking in those “gopher holes”!

  13. Peggy Garrett

    Hi, my dog found a baby gofer turtle in our back yard. Can I move it somewhere else ? If I leave it in the back he will not leave it alone. Thank you.

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