Life in the Slow Lane: A Profile of the Gopher Tortoise
|Gopher tortoise entering burrow; photo by Gary Foster.|
Gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) are native reptiles that can be found throughout the southeastern U.S.. They prefer sandhill communities, which are typified by longleaf pines and turkey oaks growing in loose, sandy soil. Much of the longleaf pine in Florida has been replaced with slash pine, which grows significantly faster; the unfortunate byproduct has been a loss of 80% of the gopher tortoise's habitat. As these reptiles are primarily herbivorous, they depend on fire to open up the canopy and let in sunlight for understory plants to grow. Fun fact: gopher tortoises do not eat during winter.
|Gopher tortoises copulating; photo by Stephen LeQuier.|
|Concave male plastron above. Flat|
female plastron below. Photo from
|Tortoise hatching from its hard egg;|
photo by Mike Simmons
Have you seen a gopher tortoise or a tortoise burrow before? Here's a story by Peg Lindsay about her up-close and personal encounter with the species:
Wildflower gardens have a totally different “look” to them. They’re usually not showy, manicured nor neat. Mine is no exception. My husband and I had intended to trim back the dead stems and apply leaf mulch in the fall, but we noticed Goldfinches perching on the dead stalks snacking from the seed-heads, and Cardinals, Mockingbirds and Palm Warblers scratching through the leaf litter for their dinner. We decided to let it be, through the winter. It was . . . um . . . unattractive. At least it wasn't in the FRONT yard.
When the weather warmed up, new sprouts began to poke through the sand, and all danger of another freeze had past, we decided it was finally time to clean up the mess. That's when we noticed a Gopher Tortoise hole right smack in the middle of our garden. It was about 8 inches wide by about 5 inches high – definitely sized for a youngster. We proudly showed it to anyone who wandered by.
|Young gopher tortoise photo by Melody Hendrix.|
Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law, so we had to manage our garden while protecting the hole. I was nervous about disturbing it, so I spoke to a friend of mine who has several of these critters in her yard. She said that I can go ahead and plant and weed around the burrow. She also told me that they are opportunistic eaters - although they are primarily vegetarian and will eat just about any plant which grows in Florida, they also snack on insects and other tiny creatures. The variety of native grasses and wildflowers in our garden may have been what attracted the tortoise to begin with!
FWC on Florida’s Gopher Tortoise
For young readers:
The Gopher Tortoise – A Life History
At Home with the Gopher Tortoise: The Story of a Keystone Species