Gopher Tortoises: A Keystone Species and Important Native Neighbor

Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) are one of five tortoise species native to North America and the only species found east of the Mississippi River. At one time the tortoise could be found as far north as North Carolina and as far West as Eastern Texas, but human activity and associated habitat loss, have shrunk their range considerably. Gopher Tortoises are considered a keystone species in that other animals depend on their burrows for survival. Tortoise burrows are used by over 350 other species, including the Burrowing Owl, and the endangered Eastern Indigo snake.

Gopher Tortoises are long lived, reaching up to 100 years of age in captivity and living 60 or more years in the wild. They weigh 8-15 pounds and measure 10-15 inches end to end when fully grown. Sexual maturity is achieved at 10-15 years of age and females may lay clutches of 5-8 eggs on average. Due to predation, the majority of eggs never survive to hatch, and it has been estimated that a female Gopher Tortoise may only raise one successful clutch every ten years. Gopher Tortoises do not play an active role in parenting their hatchlings and the young that do survive to hatch must fend for themselves. Young Gophers are vulnerable to predation by snakes, raptors, bears, and racoons until their shell hardens between six and seven years of age.

Named for the burrows they occupy, Gopher Tortoises excel at excavation, using their powerful legs to dig out tunnels that average 15 feet in length but can exceed lengths of 40 feet. These epic burrows offer protection from weather, fire, and predators and are where Gopher Tortoises spend most of their time. Gopher Tortoise burrows are easily identified by the single opening that is approximately the same width as the length of the tortoise, and by the sandy mound, or apron, that surrounds the entry. If you spot an occupied burrow, and are equal parts lucky and patient, you may see a tortoise emerge from, or return to, his home. It is important that you keep your distance and not bother the tortoise (use that zoom lens to get a better look), and never block his burrow for any reason. State law protects both tortoises and their burrows and only permitted individuals can relocate them.

Habitat loss is the greatest threat to Gopher Tortoises. As humans move into tortoise territory the Gopher often finds himself on the losing end of battles with cars, pets, and people. Adding to this is the fact that this herbivore relies on ecosystems that experience periodic natural fires to open up tree canopies and promote herbaceous plant growth. When natural fires are suppressed (as is often the case, understandably, when humans move in) the habitat may become less suitable for Gopher Tortoises. Land managers can use prescribed burns to mimic natural fires and maintain healthy sandhill, flatwood, and scrub ecosystems that are preferred by Gopher Tortoises (and many other native wildlife species).

What can you do to help Gopher Tortoises? If you see a Gopher Tortoise trying to cross a busy road FWC grants permission to move the tortoise across the road in the direction it was headed (provided it is safe for you to do so) but do not put the tortoise in your car or move them to another location as this would qualify as illegal possession. Never, ever put a tortoise in the water (they are terrestrial turtles, and they can’t swim). If you have a tortoise burrow on your residential property you should avoid mowing around the entrance if possible and try to disturb the area as little as possible. Don’t block the entrance to the burrow and make sure the Gopher Tortoise can come and go freely from your yard. If you wish, you can provide tortoise friendly snacks by planting native vegetation like wiregrass, blueberries, and prickly pear on your property.

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Posted: November 23, 2021

Category: Wildlife

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