Fact Sheet
Gopher Tortoise
Gopher tortoise, © Cindy McIntyre

Basic Facts About Gopher Tortoises

Gopher tortoises are so named because of their ability to dig large, deep burrows. These burrows are widely used by other species throughout the ecosystem, making gopher tortoises a keystone species with a pivotal role to play in their native community.

Gopher tortoises have shovel-like front legs that help them to dig, and their back legs are strong and sturdy. As with all turtles, the undersides of males’ shells are concave, distinguishing them from females. Male gopher tortoises also have longer tails than females and extended shells under their chins that they use for ramming or butting, but females are larger in size. As adults they are mostly brownish gray with a yellowish, tan underside. In hatchlings, the scute (the polygon shapes covering the shell) are bright yellow with brown edges.

Diet

Gopher tortoises are herbivores.  They eat grasses, the flowers, fruits and leaves of herbaceous plants and shrubs like asters and legumes, daisies, clover, peas, cat briar, blueberries and palmetto berries, as well as stinging nettle, prickly pear cactus and pine needles. Because they get water from plants and dew, tortoises rarely drink water.

Population

The majority of the remaining gopher tortoises are in the state of Florida where the population was estimated in 2003 to be under 800,000, but in steep decline.

Habitat & Range

The gopher tortoise lives in dry, sandy uplands, such as oak-sandhills, scrub, pine flatwoods and coastal dunes of the southeastern United States.  It is the only tortoise in the eastern part of the country.   Human activities eliminated gopher tortoises from a significant portion of their historic range, but they still occur in Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, with the majority of the remaining population in Florida.

Behavior

Gopher tortoises are one of the few species of tortoise that dig burrows. These burrows can be up to ten feet deep and 40 feet long, and are as wide as the length of the tortoise that made it. The burrow is integral to the tortoise’s survival.  It provides shelter from the sun, stable temperature and relative humidity, protection from predators, a site for laying eggs under the sandy soil at the burrow mouth, and it is a crucial refuge for the tortoise and other species that are adapted to the fires that naturally occur in the tortoise’s native ecosystem. Other species that use the gopher tortoise burrows are called commensals, and they include nearly 400 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects, such as the eastern indigo snake, Florida mouse, gopher frog, burrowing owl and gopher cricket.

Another aspect of gopher tortoise behavior that benefits the native community is how it feeds.  The tortoise “prunes” the plants it eats, usually leaving a healthy plant ready to send out new nutritious growth, while the seeds are fertilized and distributed in the scat throughout its home range.

Reproduction

In the spring, gopher tortoises engage in mating behavior. The male visits the burrows of females in its colony. Communicating through head bobbing, shell nipping and rubbing of pheromones from scent glands on his legs leads to mating.  The female digs a nest at the mouth of her burrow or another sunny site where she buries ping-pong-ball-sized eggs that hatch about 3 months later.  Eggs and hatchlings that escape being eaten by raccoons, skunks, dogs and other predators may spend the first winter in their mother's burrow or protected beneath fallen leaves and soil, eventually creating  burrows of their own.  Depending upon what latitude they live at, the tortoises will not become reproductively mature until they are 10 to 25 years old.

Mating season: April - June
Gestation: 80-100 days
Clutch size: 3-15 eggs

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