Gopher Tortoise

The gopher tortoise is large, as North American land turtles go, but it does not stand out.

Adult Gopher Tortoise
Adult Gopher Tortoise

It’s slow-moving, grayish-tan, close to the ground, and when not moving it resembles a smooth, dome-shaped rock. On top of that, it spends a good part of its time underground. The tortoise is most visible when actively digging, as a fountain of sand flies up behind its claws.

The burrow is easier to find than the tortoise itself. The burrow of a mature tortoise can be spotted from a long distance in the hot, sunny, sandy habitat it prefers. A tortoise burrow is a crescent-shaped hole in the ground, with a wide mound of sand called an apron in front. These burrows go all the way down to the water table, so they stay relatively cool and moist in summer, and relatively warm in winter. This makes them an ideal refuge for many other species, and the tortoise doesn’t seem to mind sharing. Over 350 species have been found in gopher tortoise burrows 1. Personally, I have seen frogs, snakes, mice, beetles, and once a skunk.

Tortoises make their burrows just wide enough to turn around, which is very convenient for biologists. You can estimate the length of the tortoise by measuring the width of its burrow. It’s wise to use long-handled calipers to do this, because just inside a gopher tortoise burrow is the favorite hiding place of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. You do not want to put your hands in there!

For five summers, that’s what I did: look for gopher tortoise burrows, measure them, and enter them as waypoints in a GPS. It was very hot work: the tortoises are most active in summer, so that’s the best time to determine which burrows are in active use and which have been abandoned.

Gopher tortoises live in the sandhills, scrub, and dry flatwoods of the southeastern/Gulf of Mexico coastal plain. They need lots of sun, mild winters, easy-to-dig sandy soil, and grass or other herbs to eat. Unfortunately, these conditions are getting harder to come by. The gopher tortoise is declining over most of its range, mostly due to habitat destruction and fire suppression. When there’s no fire, the brush in the forest grows thick enough to block the sunlight from reaching the ground. No sunlight = no green plants close enough to the ground for the tortoise to reach. Tortoises are also sometimes hunted for food, but that practice is dying out.

On a lighter note, here’s a beautiful video about gopher tortoise burrows and their many occupants. I am filled with envy at the sight of that awesome remote-controlled camera. We had a little infrared camera on the end of a PVC pipe, and it always ploughed up dirt and blocked our view.


1 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. http://myfwc.com/media/2447514/GT_commensal.pdf

Further resources:
Encyclopedia of Life
Wikipedia
US Fish and Wildlife Service

Published by

Bethany Harvey

I’m a biologist, environmental educator, occasional firefighter and frequent cubicle monkey living in North Carolina. I write literary short stories and SFF novels, and hope to someday figure out why it doesn’t work the other way around. You can find me yelling about politics on Twitter (@bethanyharvey) or about under-appreciated wildlife at OverlookedNature.com.

11 thoughts on “Gopher Tortoise”

  1. Dear Bethany,

    I enjoyed reading your article.
    Honestly, I have learned enough to brag about the Gopher tortoise among my friends.
    Your writing is so engaging that I didn’t feel any shred of boredom going through the article. It’s flawless.
    On a lighter note: Rattlesnakes are funny because they try to kick others out of their homes. 🙂

    On a serious note: I really never thought about wildfire being helpful to ecosystems. I used to hear about fire suppression and thought that it was a great thing because it saved innumerable lives. Doesn’t it save many of them?

    Ecology is a very interesting subject. I would love to read your other articles too. 🙂

    Sincerely,
    Anand

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love the photographs to go along with the post and that they are very good ones. You bring up preferred habitat and even cause and effect of variables on the environment. Very informative and educational blog. Lovely set up on your theme also.

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  3. Oh thank you so much Bethany .
    This was very interesting and educative and the video you linked is awesome.
    And now I am even more convinced that “i am a turtle”, my basement is my refuge when it is too hot, as I don’t handle excess heat and sun very well.
    Look forward to be educated and entertained by your blog 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post brought up a memory from childhood. I recall going to the zoo and sitting on one of these turtles, as my father took a picture. When I asked my parents years (decades) later about the experience they said it didn’t happen!

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    1. Sorry, your comment got caught in my spam filter!

      If the tortoise was big enough to sit on, it was probably one of the Galapagos tortoises. I remember seeing one at the Erie Zoo when I was a kid. They look a lot like the gopher tortoise, but on a larger scale!

      Liked by 1 person

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