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Gopher Tortoises Are Adapted To The Heat

gopher tortoise

Gopher tortoises are often hidden in the tall grasses as they slowly plod through the hot summer days.

By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director

The 90 degree plus late July temperature reading have many residents slowing their pace for the explicit purpose on not overheating. The summer shuffle, along with a good hat and plenty of water, will partially mitigate the solar excesses.

One native creature is well adapted to these weather extremes by the restrictions on its locomotion. Its configuration and pace are designed to prevent overexertion, but place it in danger of some modern hazards.

Such is the life of gopher tortoises in Wakulla County, always scuttling about in an attempt to survive in the sometimes hostile environment of contemporary life.

In an attempt to correct former injuries to the species, Florida has made this long suffering native its “State Tortoise”. Not to be outdone, Georgia bestowed the title of “State Reptile” on all gopher tortoises, complete with all the recognition and privileges which are attached to that esteemed honorarium.

These tortoises, with all their latter-day titles, are burrowing creatures.  They were not deterred by the housing slowdown a few years ago, each animal having several burrows in its home range.

The idle burrows are not vacant when the gopher tortoise is not in residence.  Over 300 species, mostly native, have the opportunity for temporary habitation when the owner is at another location.

The list of temporary tenants may include a variety of snakes and small mammals, some which will coexist with the tortoises.  The burrows, which may reach up to 50 feet in length, can offer a welcome reprieve from the baking summer sun.

In central and south Florida the gopher tortoise’s burrows have become a target for the Tegu lizards. This exotic carnivorous reptile from South America has a taste for gopher tortoises, along with other native species. Luckily, these scaly invaders have not made it to Wakulla County.

Occasionally homeowners will find burrows in the landscape.  Many times a gopher tortoise gets the blame, but is not guilty of the transgression.

A large hole, six to 12 inches in diameter, accompanied by a large mound of sandy soil is characteristic of a gopher tortoise. Their burrow entrances are always wider than they are tall to accommodate the dimensions of the tortoise’s shell.

Armadillos, another exotic pest species, may be the burrowing culprit. Sensing their unwelcomed status, their burrows are usually located in obscured, protected area such as beneath brush piles, stumps, in dense brush, or concrete patios, and are about 7-8 inches in diameter.

The burrow’s opening is round to fit the armadillo’s circular profile.  Like the gopher tortoise, armadillos have multiple burrows in their home range.

Habitat loss has been the greatest threat to the gopher tortoise population.  These reptiles like to live on the same lands as people, but cohabitation has been a problem even though it has been listed as a threatened species since 1987.

Its slow pace has also made it vulnerable to domestic animals, children seeking a novel pet, and even distracted drivers who run over them in the roadways.  It seems like nothing is totally safe on hot summer days.

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