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