Gopher tortoises share their burrows with more than 350 other species including the Eastern indigo snake, rodents, gopher frog, Florida mouse, and hundreds of invertebrates like beetles and crickets who also depend on the burrows for shelter and predator protection. This makes gopher tortoises a keystone species — one without which many other species would not survive.
Protect the Gopher Tortoise
The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is a terrestrial species and the only tortoise found east of the Mississippi River. They range from southeastern Louisiana to southern South Carolina, and south to Florida. Gopher tortoises are found in all 67 counties across Florida and have been on the planet for 60 million years. Gopher tortoise populations have declined significantly throughout their range, especially in the western and northern areas. Their populations in the Florida Panhandle and southeast coastal regions are severely reduced from historical levels. The gopher tortoise was federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1987 only in a portion of its western range. In Florida the gopher tortoise is designated as a threatened species under the Florida Endangered and Threatened Species Rule.
If you see a gopher tortoise crossing the road, and it is safe for you to do so, you may move it across the road in the same direction it was headed.
The primary threat to the gopher tortoise is habitat loss and fragmentation. Longleaf pine forests once stretched across the South; dramatic losses of these forests as well as scrub and dry prairies have eliminated much of the habitat where gopher tortoises historically thrived. The tortoises depend on large parcels of undeveloped land that is not fragmented by roads, buildings or other structures. Today, these barriers limit food availability and increase road mortality, especially for females searching for nesting sites. Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law. Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) before capturing and relocating tortoises. If you see a gopher tortoise crossing the road, and it is safe for you to do so, you may move it across the road in the same direction it was headed.
Gopher tortoises have strong, elephant-like back legs, with front legs covered in scales and shovel-like feet specialized for digging. Adults are usually 9-11 inches in length, though can reach up to 15 inches, and weigh 8-15 pounds. The shell of the adult can be tan, brown or grey. Hatchlings and juveniles have a yellow-orange and brown shell, which fades as they age. They are well-designed for digging deep burrows in the sandy soil. Though some gopher tortoises live in coastal dunes, they are terrestrial and cannot swim.
Remember never put a gopher tortoise in the water! They do not swim and are strictly land animals.
The gopher tortoise was listed as a Species of Special Concern in Florida in 1979 and was reclassified as a State-designated Threatened species in 2007.
In the wild gopher tortoises can live up to 40-60 years, though captive tortoises may live more than 90 years. Males reach adulthood at approximately 9-12 years of age, whereas a female may take 10-21 years to reach maturity. Gopher tortoises spend up to 80% of their time in their burrows. These burrows average 15 feet long and 6.5 feet deep and tortoises often use multiple burrows throughout their lives. Gopher tortoises depend upon their environment to maintain their body temperature. Their burrows maintain a stable temperature and humidity year-round, providing protection from extreme temperatures, drought, fire and predators. In our warm Florida climate, tortoises are active year-round, with peak activity outside burrows occurring from May through August. In northern Florida, tortoises typically remain within their burrows during cold winter months but will bask or forage near their burrows on warm winter days.
Gopher tortoises prefer well-drained, sandy soils in habitats such as longleaf pine sandhills, xeric oak hammocks, scrub, pine flatwoods, dry prairies, and coastal dunes. They are also found in a variety of disturbed habitats including pastures and urban areas. Gopher tortoises need sandy soils for digging burrows and nesting, plenty of herbaceous plants for food, and open areas with sparse canopy for nesting and basking. Historically, natural fires have been important in many of these habitats to reduce canopy cover and promote growth of herbaceous plants. When fire is suppressed in these environments, the habitat can become unsuitable for gopher tortoises. Prescribed fire is frequently used today to maintain these habitats.
Gopher Tortoise: Gopherus polyphemus
Gopher tortoises are herbivorous; they graze on low-growing plants like broadleaf grasses, wiregrass, prickly pear cactus, legumes, gopher apple and various berries. Tortoises will eat what is available in their environment and may alter their diet seasonally depending on availability of food. They typically forage within 160 feet of their burrow but will travel farther to find food. Gopher tortoises get adequate water from the plants they eat. The grazing behavior of the tortoise benefits the ecosystem. Grazing on the broadleaf plants, the tortoise prunes them, encouraging the plant to send up new growth. The gopher tortoise also helps distribute seeds throughout its home range.
Females begin reproducing between ages 9 and 21 and males between ages 9 and 18. Females can produce one clutch of 5-8 eggs a year, though may not lay a clutch every year. The breeding season occurs between March through October or December. After mating, the female gopher tortoise digs a nest near her burrow. Nests are in open, sunny locations, frequently in the soft sand, or “apron,” around the burrow entrance. Once the clutch is laid, the eggs are covered by the female and no further care is given by the parents. It takes 80-100 days for hatchlings to emerge. The sex of the hatchlings is determined by nest temperature during incubation. With cooler temperatures more males are produced; warmer incubation temperatures produce more females.
The gopher tortoise is a keystone species, meaning that other species will not survive unless we strongly advocate for the conservation and protection of the gopher tortoise. FWF continues to promote habitat conservation and appropriate land use and management practices. It is essential to preserve and manage remaining upland and wetland areas as part of a complete ecosystem, and to restore habitat that has been degraded. You can help gopher tortoises. Let elected officials know you care about preserving Florida’s native wildlife. Encourage local and state officials to set aside habitat for wildlife. Advocate for green spaces, corridors and wildlife tunnels in and around developments. Help your friends and neighbors learn about gopher tortoises and the other wonderful native animals and plants in your region.