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Herps of SC/GA

Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

Photos by J.D. Willson unless otherwise noted

species photo range map: SC and GArange map: eastern US

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 females.

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.

Pertinent References:
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, 2: 161-170.

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


hatchling gopher tortoise
species photo

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Turtles of SC and GA
Reptiles and Amphibians of SC and GA
SREL Herpetology