Step Aside Gator Fans: It’s the Gopher Tortoise’s Time to Shine
The state of Florida conjures up images of alligators, panthers, dolphins and many other charismatic wildlife that call the Sunshine State home. One animal that often gets overlooked on that list, is the uniquely named gopher tortoise. The gopher tortoise is also one of Florida’s finest species, but less people know about this truly fascinating creature that almost exclusively makes its home in Florida. For this reason, the Gopher Tortoise Council and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have designated April 10, 2017 as Florida Gopher Tortoise Day.
The goal is to increase awareness, appreciation and protection for the gopher tortoise, an amazing, long-living (their average lifespan is 60 years), gentle reptile and its dwindling habitat. The gopher tortoise is listed as threatened in the state of Florida which represents the largest portion of its habitat range. Once found widely throughout the southeastern United States, habitat loss has all but driven the gopher tortoise out of these neighboring states and into its last stronghold in the state of Florida where it faces new threats of development, habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation.
What’s in a Name?
You might be wondering “what kind of animal is a gopher tortoise?” It sounds like something cooked up in the lab of a mad scientist fusing animal species together. Alas, the gopher tortoise is not some half fuzzy, half scaly creature out of science fiction, but its name, albeit strange, is actually quite accurate for this unique reptile.
Gopher tortoises are so named because of their ability to dig large, deep burrows—essentially, they are tortoises with the impressive digging skills of a gopher. They have strong, sturdy back legs that provide stability and specialized shovel-like front legs that enable their skillful digging and burrow engineering. Their burrows are like subterranean villages that often have multi-directional tunnels. One such burrow, excavated in the Florida Panhandle, was recorded at 65 feet long and 26 feet deep!
The gopher tortoise burrows are so impressive their neighbors are clamoring to move in. Their burrows play an indispensable role in their native ecosystem and are often used as shelter by other species particularly during the chilly winter months or as temporary refuge during wildfires.
Because their burrows provide shelter to over 350 other species of wildlife, called “commensals,” gopher tortoises are considered a keystone species. Among the commensal species that take up residence in the tortoise’s burrow are the gopher frog, Florida mouse, Eastern indigo snake, burrowing owl and hundreds of invertebrates like beetles and crickets. Without the gopher tortoise, many of these species would not survive.
From Sun Helmets to Stew: A Brief History of the Gopher Tortoise in Florida
Gopher tortoises occur throughout the state and people may frequently encounter them in suburban neighborhoods, along roadways, and in many public recreational lands. This amazing reptile has been roaming the upland pine forests, sandhills and even coastal dunes of the deep south for thousands of years.
Throughout its storied history in Florida, the gopher tortoise has served many useful purposes. Ancient Native Americans had a monetary system using the gopher tortoise shell. Shells were also used as baskets, pots and even sun helmets. Tortoises were a reliable source of food during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when there was little else to eat. Of course, historically these so-called ‘Hoover chickens’ were much more plentiful 90 years ago. Today, Florida’s fast-paced development and the threats of habitat destruction, fragmentation and degradation have left the gopher tortoise population a fraction of what it used to be.
In Harm’s Way
Despite our seemingly insatiable desire to invade and develop key habitat for the gopher tortoise and other wildlife, the gopher tortoise is tolerant of humans and even makes a good neighbor. For the most part they keep to themselves, holed up in their burrows. Beginning in the warmer spring months, they become increasingly active, leaving their underground burrows in search of spring greenery to eat and, in many cases, seeking out a mate. This is when we are more likely to encounter these unassuming neighbors who want nothing more than to go about their business at a comfortable pace (as tortoises are want to do). In this critical time of potential interaction between tortoises and humans, we can be vigilant and help our friendly reptilian neighbors by:
- Watching out for a tortoise crossing the highway and, if it’s safe to do so, picking it up and placing it on the roadside in the direction it was heading.
- If you move a tortoise don’t put this terrestrial animal in the water. Even though they can be found in coastal dune systems, they cannot swim a stroke.
- Supporting highway crossings that allow tortoises and other wildlife to safely cross busy roadways.
- Supporting Defenders’ work in Florida and throughout the country. Defenders has a very active gopher tortoise conservation advocacy program in Florida.
How Defenders is Helping the Gopher Tortoise
Defenders supports gopher tortoise conservation by monitoring legislation, participating in policy workgroups, coordinating with state and federal wildlife agencies to protect and restore habitat, and educating the public about the importance of these amazing animals.
The Defenders Southeast region staff actively serves on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Gopher Tortoise Technical Assistance Group that provides scientific information and technical assistance to FWC staff concerning regulations, management and conservation of gopher tortoises. They are also involved with several other working groups throughout Florida, like the Gopher Tortoise Candidate Conservation Committee, as well as other southeastern states. Through these groups, they work to explore, coordinate and address the best ways to protect, restore and preserve suitable habitat. One critical ecosystem Defenders focuses its efforts on is the preservation of longleaf pine wire grass, a preferred habitat for the gopher tortoise.
Celebrate the Gopher Tortoise this April 10th!
You can help celebrate Florida’s only native tortoise (in fact, the only native tortoise east of the Mississippi River) by hosting an event in your community, asking your local City or County Commission to officially adopt April 10th as Gopher Tortoise Day, and/or by educating others on the importance of protecting gopher tortoises and their habitat.
To learn more about this special tortoise or the Second Annual Florida Gopher Tortoise Day visit our gopher tortoise fact page.