Gopher tortoise

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Found in the southeastern U.S., the gopher tortoise is critical to keeping its ecosystem healthy. Urbanization and other threats, however, have rendered this species vulnerable to extinction.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the gopher tortoise?

The gopher tortoise earned its name because it digs deep burrows—like a gopher. This large tortoise, which can weigh up to 15 pounds, has scaly, shovel-like front legs that are specialized for digging. It lives in the southeastern United States and is the only land tortoise native to the area. It became the official state tortoise of Florida in 2008. The gopher tortoise is a keystone species, meaning that it’s very important to the health of the ecosystem it inhabits. Gopher tortoise burrows provide shelter to hundreds of different animals, ranging from frogs to owls and even endangered indigo snakes.

Habitat and diet

This tortoise is found from Louisiana to South Carolina, but it's mainly concentrated in Florida. Though it’s most active when the weather is warm, the gopher tortoise spends much of its life inside burrows to avoid predators and extreme weather. These burrows maintain stable temperature and humidity levels throughout the year. A gopher tortoise will dig several burrows throughout its lifetime, with males in Florida known to dig up to 35. The dry and sandy soil needed to dig the burrows is found on sandhills under dry oak and longleaf pine trees. Nevertheless, the gopher tortoise will even use well-drained soil in old pastures and roadsides when necessary.

Longleaf pine forests and coastal dunes provide optimal conditions for the tortoise. It needs a habitat with trees—but not too many. Otherwise, sunlight cannot filter through to nourish the low-growing plants that are staples of the tortoise’s diet. It also eats berries, flowers, grass, and mushrooms, as well as apples and cactus pads. The gopher tortoise helps the plants it eats by spreading their seeds through droppings. As an opportunistic eater, the tortoise will also consume dead crabs and insects. The gopher tortoise gets plenty of water from the plants it eats, so rarely needs to seek out separate water sources.

Behavior and reproduction

The gopher tortoise prefers leading a solitary life—except during mating season. That’s why you probably won’t find more than one gopher tortoise in a burrow, unless you come across a nest of hatchlings. Females lay their eggs near the entrance of the burrow, and many are eaten by coyotes, raccoons, and eagles passing by unguarded nests. Gopher tortoise eggs take 80 to 110 days to hatch, and babies are independent from birth—they receive no parental care.

The gopher tortoise can live for 60 years in the wild. It can take up to 21 years for an individual to reach maturity, at which point, it’s ready to mate. Though gopher tortoises are normally docile, males become aggressive when fighting over a female and will push and ram into each other. Though scientists have documented the gopher tortoise’s mating behaviors, there are still many unknowns about how an individual finds a mate.

Threats to survival

The gopher tortoise is classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Scientists estimate that there are currently 700,000 gopher tortoises left in the wild, perhaps less than a third of their numbers a century ago.

The main threat the species faces is habitat loss. Urbanization continues to fragment and destroy longleaf forests. At the current rate of development, the gopher tortoise could lose 20 percent of its habitat within the next 40 years.

Female tortoises are also at risk of being hit by cars while searching for suitable locations to build their nests. All of these threats are exacerbated by how long it takes the tortoise to reach sexual maturity—slowing the production of new offspring—and the low survival rate of its eggs.

Conservation

Florida has several programs dedicated to protecting the gopher tortoise. Volunteers can help the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to transport and treat injured tortoises as well as relocate healthy ones from unsafe areas. Georgia also has an initiative to permanently protect more than 60 tortoise populations. Other FWC-led conservation efforts include teaching the public about gopher tortoises so that people understand what to do—and not do—if they spot a tortoise that seems like it needs help. The FWC even created a smartphone app that people can use to document tortoise locations.


Why Is This Gopher Tortoise Head-Banging?

Gopher tortoises are considered a keystone species because many other species rely on their burrows to survive.