Gopher Tortoise Fact SheetThe gopher tortoise (gopherus polyphemus) is a member of the class reptilia.
Its carapace (top of shell) is grayish-brown and unmarked in adults, while its plastron
(bottom of shell), legs, head and neck are golden-yellow.
Gopher tortoises dig burrows -- typically ranging in size from 20 to 30 feet long and
from six to eight feet deep -- with their shovel-like front legs. Biologists have found
some burrows as big as 40 feet long and 10 feet deep! The burrows are found in dry places
such as sandhills, flatwoods, prairies and coastal dunes or in human-made environments
such as pastures, grassy roadsides and old fields. The gopher tortoise is a keystone
species, meaning its extinction would result in measurable changes to the ecosystem in
which it occurs. Specifically, other animals, such as gopher frogs, several species of
snakes and several small mammals, depend on tortoise burrows. For the gopher tortoise to
thrive, the animal generally needs three things: well-drained sandy soil (for digging
burrows), plenty of low plant growth (for food) and open, sunny areas (for nesting and
The gopher tortoise is found along the dry sand ridges of the southeastern Coastal
Plain. In Florida, tortoises are found in the panhandle and along the southeastern coast.
Tortoises are also found in the southern parts of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and
Gopher tortoises usually mate during April and May. Shortly after mating, the female
lays between three and 15 eggs, either in a sandy mound in front of her burrow or a nearby
sunny place. The eggs mature and hatch from 70 to 100 days later.
The hatchlings spend much of their time in their mother's burrow until they're old
enough to dig their own. They don't reach maturity until they are between 10 and 15 years
old, when their shells are about 9 inches long.
Gopher tortoises usually eat low-growing plants found in bright sunshine, primarily
grasses such as wiregrass. Some tortoises have been known to eat gopher apples,
blackberries and other fruits. Gopher tortoises will also scavenge and are opportunistic
feeders, occasionally feeding on dead animals or excrement.
Gopher tortoises are regarded as endangered in South Carolina and Mississippi, and they
are protected in Georgia. They are listed as a federally threatened species in
southwestern Alabama and Louisiana. Florida and Georgia list the gopher tortoise as a
non-game species, and you must have a scientific collecting permit to keep one. Alabama
lists the gopher tortoise as a game animal, but it is illegal for people to hunt, capture
or kill one.
There are several dangers that threaten the survival of the gopher tortoise species.
The main reasons for its decline are habitat destruction because of urbanization, mining
for phosphate, limestone and sand, and careless use of herbicides and pesticides. Other
Many forestry services replace the trees they have cut down with closely spaced slash,
loblolly or sand pine. The branches and leaves of these trees are very thick and reduce
the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground, thereby limiting the growth of grasses
that tortoises eat for food. This also makes it hard for female tortoises to find a spot
sunny enough to lay her eggs.
Tortoises as food
During the Great Depression, many people ate tortoises when they couldn't afford any
other kind of meat. Some people still consider gopher tortoises a delicacy, and mistakenly
believe that eating tortoise flesh can help with some medical problems. Illegal hunting of
tortoises for food has wiped out entire colonies in some places.
Many tortoises are killed each year by motor vehicles. In addition, building new roads
sometimes isolates colonies of tortoises, making it hard for them to find food or places
There are a number of questions scientists haven't been able to answer yet, including:
Scientists at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory are trying find answers to these
questons. They have proposed a reintroduction of the gopher tortoise to the southern edge
of the Savannah River Site. Researchers believe gopher tortoises once lived on the SRS
about 100 years ago, but were driven away by agriculture and other habitat destruction.
Now, a suitable habitat exists on site where they could be studied for the next 20 or 30
years. Research from this program and others like it could help give the gopher tortoise a
- How do gopher tortoises select mates?
- How many burrows are used each year by males and females?
- How long do tortoises live?
- Can gopher tortoises be moved from one colony to another successfully?
Did You Know?
- Tortoise burrows also provide homes for other animals, such as indigo snakes, gopher
frogs, mice, foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, snakes,
lizards, frogs, toads and other invertebrates.
- Turtle eggs are threatened by such predators as armadillos, raccoons, foxes, skunks and
alligators. Once they hatch, however, tortoises have few enemies besides humans, dogs,
raccoons and coyotes and can live at least 40 years, usually longer.
- Not all forestry practices are bad for tortoises. Thinning and burning done by some
foresters open up the canopy of leaves and branches overhead and allow sunlight in and low
vegetation to grow.
- Tortoise racing, now illegal, used to be a popular past time in Florida. Participants
would capture tortoises, race them and then re-release them into the environment. The only
problem was that some of the tortoises weren't released in the same place they were found,
and couldn't adapt to another habitat or colony. Now, racers use fake tortoises that are
moved either by remote control or by pulleys.
Click the printer to PRINT this page
Click the printer to PRINT this page