Description: The Gopher Tortoise is the only tortoise
in the Southeast and can easily be distinguished from the
box turtle (our only other fully terrestrial turtle) by its large
size, rigid, unhinged plastron (bottom of shell) and its
stumpy, unwebbed feet. Adult Gopher Tortoises are large
9-15 in (24 - 38 cm) and are tan or brown above with a
yellowish plastron. The juveniles can be yellowish and brightly
patterned. Males have a concave plastron and longer tail than
Range and Habitat: Gopher Tortoises are found in the Lower
Coastal Plain of the Southeast, from southern South Carolina to
Louisiana and throughout Florida. This species prefers well-drained
sandy areas (in which it can burrow) and is absent from extensive
wetland area (e.g., the Everglades and Okefenokee). It was a resident
of the fire-dependent longleaf pine belt that is now highly fragmented.
Now it persists only in areas where the canopy is open enough
to allow for a dense understory on which it can feed.
Habits: Gopher tortoises dig extensive burrows where they
spend the majority of their time. They emerge in warm weather
to feed on a variety of vegetation. Tortoise burrows can extend
over 45' long and provide shelter for the tortoise as well as
hundreds of other species, including endangered indigo snakes,
eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, gopher frogs and burrowing owls.
For this reason, Gopher tortoises are considered keystone species.
Mating occurs in the spring and nesting follows in April-July.
Nests consist of 2-7 eggs in a 5" deep cavity that is sometimes
at the mouth of the females burrow. The eggs hatch from August
to September. Gopher tortoises grow slowly, taking 10 - 20 years
to reach maturity, and may live to be 50 years or older. Because
of its slow rate of growth and reproduction this species can take
decades to recover from population declines.
Conservation Status: The Gopher Tortoise is a federally
endangered species and has declined in many areas due to habitat
loss or degradation. It is protected to some degree by every state
in its range. Only careful monitoring and proper legislation can
assure the survival of this keystone species in the wild. A greater
monetary value must be placed on the ecological function of these
animals and the ecosystems in which they are present. This imperiled
reptile can certainly be managed for and luckily this management
is compatible with quail hunting which is vastly popular in the
southeast. Gopher Tortoises have recently been reintroduced to
the Savannah River Site and research is currently underway to
determine how to most successfully reestablish this species.
Tuberville, T. D ., E. E. Clark, K. A. Buhlmann and J. W. Gibbons.
2005. Translocation as a conservation tool: site fidelity and
movement of repatriated gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus).
Animal Conservation 2005(8):349-358.
Smith, R. B., T. D. Tuverville, A. L. Chambers, K. M. Herpich
and J. E. Berish. 2005. Gopher tortoise burrow surveys: external
characteristics, burrow cameras, and truth. Applied Herpetology,
Tuberville, T. D. and M. E. Dorcas. 2001. Winter survey of gopher
tortoise populations in South Carolina. Chelonian Conservation
and Biology 4:182-186.
Account Author: Matthew King, University of Georgia -
edited by J.D. Willson