The Gopher Tortoise
Gopher tortoises are land turtles that have survived for nearly 60 million years. They originated in the western parts of North America and are now found in states east of the Mississippi River. The majority live in southern Georgia and north central Florida. In other parts of Florida, southern regions of Mississippi and Alabama, and southeastern parts of Louisiana and South Carolina, gopher tortoises exist but their numbers are greatly decreasing. They are listed as Federally Threatened in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Below are more interesting facts.
The gopher tortoise can reach a length of 16 inches but the average is a bit less than 1 foot. They weigh about 30 pounds, have shovel-like front legs, and elephant-like back legs. The top of their shell (carapace) is a dark-brown to grayish color and the bottom part (plastron) is a yellowish color. The best way to determine if the gopher tortoise is a male or female is the male’s plastron is concave and the female’s is flat.
Habitat and Burrows
Gopher tortoises live in dry habitats, such as longleaf pine savannas, live oak hammocks, and dry prairies. They can also live in man-made environments, including pastures and grassy roadsides. They depend on well drained soils for digging burrows, open areas with plenty of sun for nesting, and low plant growth for food.
The gopher tortoise is one of the few tortoises to dig large burrows. The size of the burrow varies. The average length is about 30 feet. Depending on the level of the water table, some are as short as 6 feet and some can be as long as 40-50 feet. The width is about the size of the tortoise’s length, allowing them enough room to turn around, and the depth can be between 3-20 feet.
One interesting fact on gopher tortoises is they will share their burrow with many different animals, including snakes, frogs, lizards, mice, rabbits, skunks, opossums, armadillos, and burrowing owls. The burrow provides protection from fires, droughts, summer heat, freezing temperatures, and predators.
The gopher tortoise mainly eats broadleaf grasses and legumes. When available, they will eat pawpaws, gopher apples, saw palmetto berries, blackberries, and other fruits. They are also known to eat excrement and dead, rotting animals.
Gopher tortoises are rarely seen drinking from standing water except during extreme droughts. They mostly get water from the food they eat.
The gopher tortoise can take 10-20 years to mature. Mating commonly occurs during the months of May and June. The female will lay about 3-15 eggs in a mound near the entrance of its burrow. It takes about 80-100 days for the eggs to hatch.
Another interesting fact on gopher tortoises is the sex of the baby is determined by the sands temperature in which the eggs were laid. Temperatures above 85° F produce females and below 85° F produce males.
After hatching, the baby tortoises will either live with their mother in her burrow or they will dig a small tunnel next to her burrow. They are about 1-2 inches long after birth and each year, they grow about 3/4 inches.
If the eggs and hatchlings survive from predators, gopher tortoises can live up to 100 years.
Gopher tortoise: Image courtesy of https://www.birdphotos.com/
Gopher tortoise entering its burrow: Image courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Gary2863