Year of the Turtle 2020 – the Gopher Tortoise

Year of the Turtle 2020 – the Gopher Tortoise

This blog will wrap up our series on Florida turtles for the Year of the Turtle (2020) – and we end with a good one – the gopher tortoise.  We only have two true terrestrial species of turtles in Florida, and it does not get more terrestrial than the gopher tortoise.

Gopher tortoises are long-lived, protected by their thick shells and deep burrows. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

“Gophers” (Gopherus polyphemus) are well known to many ole timers because they like the same type of habitat the earlier settlers did – high dry ground.  They are indigenous to the southeast United States and prefer the open canopy of pine forest habitat.  As a kid our home was on such a place in an area of Pensacola called Scenic Heights.  Our house was on a “sand hill” that had pine and turkey oak trees.  There were a variety of grasses and legumes growing everywhere and the soil was very dry and sandy.  And we had gopher tortoise.  The famous 18th century traveler/botanist, William Bartram, described this animal several times during his travels across the southeast as he crossed “sand hills” within the massive expanse of pine forest that were here at that time.

 

Though a forest, the longleaf pine forest of the southeast had a more open canopy allowing the growth of a variety of grasses to do well on the forest floor – as they did at my house.  Tortoises are vegetarians, eating a variety of these grasses, flowers, and ground fruit.  They like the young tender shoots of these plants and they were maintained those decades ago by natural wildfires started by lighting.  The small fires would burn the large, tough plants down, providing the young tender shoots the tortoises prefer.

 

If you see a tortoise, you will notice the large square shaped shell and the elephant-like feet – definitely not a water turtle.  They dig burrows in this sandy soil in which they can live during the hot days of summer and the cold days of winter.  These burrows can be quite extensive – reaching a length of over 15 feet and a depth of up to 7 feet from the surface.  Though the literature will tell you that they prefer dry sandy soils for digging, they have been found digging in the red clay of the southeast as well.  However, these burrows are generally not as deep because the O2 levels decline and the CO2 concentrations increase significantly in clay soils.  There is only one entrance to the burrow, and it has been said that gophers can dig down – but not up.

Gopher tortoises are nesting right now–be sure to observe from a distance!

It is generally one tortoise to a burrow, but some will dig a second burrow within their range as a “back-up” during pop up thunderstorms and such.  It is not uncommon to find 2-3 tortoises sharing he entrance of a burrow during stressful moments – or during mating of course.  The temperatures within are nice a cool during the summer – ranging from 60 – 72°F.  This “air conditioned” hide away has become popular with many other creatures of the pine forest.  Over 350 species of them have been known to share the burrow.  Most of these are insects but a few vertebrates are known to call including – the gopher frog, mice, the endangered eastern indigo snake, and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.  Most of these animals use the burrow during extreme conditions – heavy rain, intense heat or cold, or during a forest fire.  The rattlesnakes tend to sit near the entrance and so observers should beware of sticking their face or hand into the opening looking for a turtle.  Many field workers will use a small hand mirror to look into the opening.  Either you see the rattlesnake, or, the reflection of sunlight into the burrow will cause the snake to rattle – altering you they are there.

 

Terrestrial turtles produce fewer young than aquatic species.  Gophers will typically produce 5-9 eggs once a year.  The eggs are usually buried within the “apron” of the burrow – this is the field of sand discarded while digging.  There is a projection from the anterior end of the plastron called a gular.  This projection is much longer in males and can be used in jousting matches with other males.  Males will also have a concave depression from the midpoint to the posterior end of the plastron.  Though mating can occur any time of year – most activity is from May to July.

A terrestrial gopher tortoise crossing the sand on Pensacola Beach.
Photo: DJ Zemenick

These animals have declined across their range.  They have the typical turtle egg raiders (raccoons, fox, skunks, and opossums) but now have threats from invasive species such as tegus and fire ants.  Hatchlings and juveniles have soft shells and are easy targets.  Coyotes have been seen hiding behind burrows flipping the emerging tortoise and then consuming it.  However, man has been a problem as well.

 

Food was one problem, and apparently still is in some parts of the south.  These animals were “noosed” from their burrows and cooked.  During the depression era they were known as “Hoover’s Chicken”.  As mentioned at the beginning – they live where we want to live.  Construction crews come in and cover “entomb” them during development projects.  It is now against Florida law and crews must relocate them.

 

In natural areas, the suppression of natural wildfires as altered the ecology enough that food for the gophers has become an issue.  As they abandon their burrows seeking better spots, they are preyed upon, run over by cars, attacked by dogs, the list goes on.  In recent years, an upper respiratory tract disease has proven to be common and deadly.

 

Today the animal is federally protected in Louisiana, Mississippi, and western Alabama.  It is species of concern throughout its range and is a state threatened species in Florida.  You cannot possess this animal but having one move into your yard is fine.

This gopher tortoise was found in a dune field; a place where they have historically been found.
Photo: DJ Zemenick

I hope you enjoyed this series on Florida turtles, during the YEAR OF THE TURTLE.  You can find more blogs on other species by visiting the natural resource page of the Escambia County Extension website and type in which species you are looking for in the “what can we help you with?” search tool at the top of the page.  https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/escambia/?topic=natural-resources#county-feed.

I hope you are lucky enough to find all 25 species in the wild.

2020 Year of the Turtle – the Florida Cooters

2020 Year of the Turtle – the Florida Cooters

Cooters are one of the more commonly seen turtles when visiting a freshwater system.  They are relatively large for a freshwater turtle (with a carapace about 13 inches long) and are often seen basking on logs, rocks, aerator pumps, you name it – and often in high numbers while doing so.  They spook easy and usually leap into the water long before you reach them.  But because of their beautiful smooth shells and large size, they can be seen from a distance – looking like wet rocks on a tree limb.

A “River Cooter” seen basking on a log in Blackwater River.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

They are in the genus Pseudemys (same as the Florida red-bellied turtles) and this genus is found throughout the southeastern United States.  However, from there the breakdown of species becomes a bit challenging.  There has been much debate how many species there really area, and how many are subspecies of those species.  There are two distinct species for sure – the “River Cooter” (Pseudemys concinna) and the “Pond Cooter” (Pseudemys floridana).  From here is gets a bit weird.

 

The “River Cooters” are just that – friends of rivers.  They like those with a bit of a current, sand/gravel bottoms, basking spots, and grasses to eat.  They have been found in estuaries, even with barnacles growing on them, so they have some tolerance for saltwater.  River cooters can be distinguished from their “Pond Cooter” cousins in having a more aerodynamic shell (presumably for their habit of living in faster flowing rivers) with yellow-orange markings that form concentric rings on each scute (scale) of the carapace.  Some of these seem to form a backwards “C”.  Their plastron is yellow-orange but will have black markings along the margins of each scute.

This river cooter is basking on a log on the heads waters of the Choctawhatchee River in Alabama.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The “Suwannee Cooter” is believed to be a subspecies (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) found in tannic rivers from the Ochlockonee just west of Tallahassee south to the Tampa Bay region.  It has only been found in rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico.  A couple of records have been found in rivers flowing towards the Atlantic, but it is believed these were relocated by humans.

 

The “Eastern River Cooter” is found from the Ochlockonee River west to Mobile Bay – possibly as far as Louisiana.  There has been a suggestion that the one west of Mobile Bay is the “Mobile Cooter” (Pseudemys concinna mobilensis) but the naming of this group, again, has been a bit crazy.

 

As mentioned, “Pond Cooters” are fans of slow-moving waters with muddy bottoms.  Unlike river cooters, pond cooters will travel over land other than to lay eggs.  Many of their “pond” selections dry up and they must find new habitat.  Like river cooters, pond cooters feed on vegetation so aquatic plants are must and they also like to bask in the sun on logs with many cooters basking at once.

A pond cooter in a canal within the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Physically they differ from river cooters in having a slightly domed shell near the head end.  The yellow markings are not concentric, but rather are in straight lines and their plastrons are an immaculate beautiful yellow – with no markings on the margins.  They do however have black circles on the bottom margins of their carapace.  These are usually round with a small yellow spot in the center – resembling an “o”.

 

There is believed to be two subspecies of this group.  Pseudemys floridana floridiana (the “Florida Cooter”) and Pseudemys floridana peninuslaris (the “Peninsula Cooter”).  Told you it was all weird.  The Florida cooter is found in the Florida panhandle and the Peninsula Cooter has been found all the way to the Florida Keys – though it does not seem to be common in the Everglades.

 

Add to the quagmire of species identification – there is hybridization between not only the types of pond and river cooters – but BETWEEN the pond and river cooters.  So, if you live in the eastern panhandle where all of these seem to converge – just call them “cooters”!

 

They have an interesting nesting habit.  When the females approach an open sunny sandy spot, she will dig a hole to lay about 20 eggs, but she will also dig two “satellite” nests on either side – and maybe place an egg or two in there.  It is quite understood why they do this, but they do.  They also may come to the beach up to five times in one year to lay eggs.

A pond cooter digging a nest on someone’s property.
Photo: Deb Mozert

Because of their high numbers and large size, this has been a favorite food item for humans for quite some time.  Due to this, and the practice of shooting them off their basking spots, and alterations of river systems lower the habitat quality for the river cooters, their numbers have declined.  The Suwannee Cooter in particular has been hard hit and is a species of concern.  Due to this it no longer allowed to harvest them (or their eggs) from the wild.  Because it is so hard to tell the Suwannee from other species/subspecies of cooters – ALL cooters are now protected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

 

Another note – they do not eat fish.  The young will eat worms and insects, but the adults are strictly herbivores.  Many pond owners want to shoot them thinking they are eating the stocked fish by the landowner.  They will not eat the fish – you are fine.

 

I think these are amazingly beautiful animals to see glimmering in the sunny on their basking logs as you explore our local rivers and wetlands.  I hope you find them just as cool and appreciate them.

 

Resources:

 

Buhlman, K., T. Tuberville, W. Gibbons. 2008. Turtles of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA.  252 pp.

 

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  Freshwater Turtles https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/freshwater-turtles/.

 

Meylan, P.A. (Ed.). 2006. Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles. Chelonian Research Monographs No.3, 376 pp.

2020 Year of the Turtle – Florida Red-bellied Turtle

2020 Year of the Turtle – Florida Red-bellied Turtle

Cooters are common freshwater turtles throughout the state of Florida.  There are currently three species listed: Pseudemys concinna – commonly known as the “river cooter”, Pseudemys floridana – referred to as the “Florida cooter”, and Pseudemys nelsoni – the “Florida red-bellied turtle”.  It is this third species we will focus on in this article.

The wide red markings contrasting with the yellow striping on the body makes this a beautiful turtle.
Photo: Wikipedia

When you pick up a Florida red-bellied turtle you will see why it gets that name.  The belly, or plastron, is a reddish-orange color.  You will also see red coloration of the large broad stripes on the carapace and small red spots on the marginal scutes of the carapace.  Contrasting this with the brilliant yellow stripes of the head and legs – this a beautiful turtle.

 

Like other cooters, they are big pond turtles as well – reaching carapace lengths up to 15 inches.  They have high domed shells, compared to the other two cooters, and the shell is much thicker.  This is probably due to the fact that the Florida red-bellied lives with the American alligator.  They are known to even lay their eggs in an alligator nest!  Other features that separate them from their cousins is the presence of yellow striping between the eyes resembling an “arrow”, and a deep notch in the upper lip.

 

The distribution of this turtle is interesting.  They are definitely found, and are common, in the peninsular part of the state – ranging from the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia to the Florida Everglades.  Here they most frequently found in slow moving backwaters of rivers and springs, lakes, ponds, marshes, sinkholes, and even canals along highways.  However, there have been verified reports of this animal in the Apalachicola River basin.  Several have been found on St. Vincent island between Apalachicola and Port St. Joe.  One was photographed within the city limits of Apalachicola and a few in the Dead Lake region of the Chipola River feeding into the Apalachicola.  There is about 100 miles between the Suwannee and Apalachicola River systems – how did they make this trip?

The red coloration of the common Florida Red-bellied turtle.
Photo: Flickr

One idea is that someone brought them there a long time ago – and they have survived.  A long time meaning prior to the 1950s.  Another thought is that the historic range may have included much of the Florida panhandle before sea level changed.  There is an Alabama Red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys alabamensis) that inhabits the marshes of the Mobile Bay delta.  The habitat here is very similar to the marshes of the Everglades, and the Apalachicola region.  The Alabama red-bellied has very similar characteristics to the Florida red-bellied (arrow stripes and notch in upper lip).  There are no records of the Alabama Red-bellied in the delta of the Escambia River, and no record of either species in the Choctawhatchee delta.  So, who knows???  To add to the story – one Florida Red-bellied was verified in the Wacissa River – which lies about halfway between the Suwannee and the Apalachicola rivers.  Yep… interesting mystery.

 

Like other cooters, the females are larger than the males and the males have elongated fingernails on their forelimbs to entice the female’s interest in mating.  These long fingernails are also found on the sliders (Trachemys).  In Florida, the red-bellied appears to breed year-round.  Even though nesting is typical of other turtles (spring and summer) they may lay eggs year-round as well.

 

The females will approach the beach multiple times during the nesting season and lay anywhere from 6-30 eggs in the nest.  Sex determination of the young is determined by the temperature within the nest, warmer eggs become females.  The Florida red-bellied has an unusual habit of laying some of their eggs in alligator nests.  Though alligators can be considered a predator of this turtle, sneaking in and laying eggs will provide protection – for unlike turtles, alligators guard their nests from predators.  It is believed the thicker shell of the Florida red-bellied is to protect it from this possible adversary.

 

That said, they do have their predators.  Like all young turtles there are a variety of birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles that feed on them.  Red-bellies are plant eaters – feeding on a variety of aquatic plants including the invasive water hyacinth and hydrilla.

 

These are common basking turtles throughout much of peninsular Florida and visitors should easily get a glimpse of them while they are here.  How far into the Florida panhandle they range is still a mystery – but an interesting one.  I hope one day you get to see this beautiful turtle.

 

References

 

Buhlmann, K., T. Tuberville, W. Gibbons. 2008. Turtles of the Southeast. University of Georgia press, Athens GA. 251 pp.

 

Meylan, P.A. (Ed.) 2006. Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles. Chelonian Research Monographs No.3. 376pp.

2020 Year of the Turtle – the Sliders

2020 Year of the Turtle – the Sliders

They call it a slider…

Maybe because they slide off a tree trunks into the water? Honestly, I really don’t know – but sliders it is.

They are very common pond turtles all across the eastern and mid-west portions of the United States reaching as far west as New Mexico.  Within this range there are two subspecies: The Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) and the Red-Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).  In Florida, only the yellow-bellied is native and it is only found in northern Florida.  The red-eared slider is found throughout our state but is non-native and considered by some to be invasive.

The distinct yellow patch on the cheek helps identify the yellow-bellied slider.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Sliders are mid-sized emydid turtles and found in almost any type of water body.  They prefer water bodies with slow currents, lots of sun, and plants – but have been found in retention ponds, rivers, golf courses, you name it.  The shell (carapace) is rounder than the other common pond turtle called the cooter.  Their shells are usually between 3 – 11 inches long, with females being larger.  They have a slight keel running down the middle of their shell and the back margin is slightly “toothed” or serrated.  The “belly” shell (or plastron) is usually yellow (source of their common name) as juveniles and forms dark blotches with age.  The body is a dark green or black color with fine yellow stripes.  The yellow-bellied slider will have a large yellow patch in the cheek area, which is easy to see from a distance.  The red-eared has a small red patch behind and above the ear area.  The carapace will be green as a juvenile and become darker as an adult.  There will be beautiful patterns of yellow in the shell that fade with time.  Older sliders will have faded shells all together and the yellow markings on the head and body will fade as well.  They call this a melanistic phase.

 

Sliders are most active during daylight hours and are known to spend some time on land.  They can be seen frequently basking on tree stumps and logs and can be aggressive towards each other.  Red-eared sliders are known to be aggressive in aquaria.

 

They are omnivores.  Young sliders are carnivorous feeding on small worms and insects.  The adults switch to plant diet.  Many sliders are shot, or destroyed in other ways, by locals thinking they will eat all the fish in their ponds – they will not.

 

Males are usually smaller, typically not having carapace lengths greater than 10 inches.  Mature males will have extended “fingernails” or claws on their forelimbs.  Mating takes place in the water and females have been known to travel up to 1500 feet from the water seeking good nesting habitat.  Once found, they may dig a couple of “trial” nests before laying 5-20 eggs in a real one.  They lay up to 3 active nests/nesting female/year.

 

Numerous animals will consume the turtle eggs and hatchlings.  Adults have been consumed by alligators, minks, raccoons, otters, and gars.

 

Within their range, they are considered common but are still protected by Florida law.  You may not have more than one slider/person/day from the wild and cannot use for commercial purposes.  The red-eared slider is considered non-native and it is illegal to release non-natives into the local environment.

 

These are beautiful turtles and we hope that if you have not already seen one, you will get to soon.

2020 Year of the Turtle – Diamondback Terrapins

2020 Year of the Turtle – Diamondback Terrapins

In my time educating the public about Florida turtles I have found that most Floridians have not heard of diamondback terrapins.  They have heard of, and seen turtles, but are not sure what the names of the different species are and are not familiar with the term terrapin at all.  Which brings up the question – what is the different between a turtle, a tortoise, and a terrapin?

The light colored skin and dark markings are pretty unique to the terrapin.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Honestly, they are cultural terms and not “biological” descriptions.  We associate the term “tortoise” with a land turtle – and this is true – yet we call the box turtle a “turtle” – which is fine.  In Great Britain they call almost everything a “terrapin”.  The term “terrapin” is a Delaware Indian term meaning “edible turtle”.  Most turtles are edible, but this term stuck to a group of brackish water turtles in the Chesapeake area near Delaware we now call “terrapins”.

 

In the Mid-Atlantic states, terrapins are more known than they are here – and they appear to be more abundant.  They are the mascot of the University of Maryland, and the official state reptile there.  “Turtle Soup”, a popular cultural dish in the Chesapeake, is made with terrapins.  It was served as part of the state dinner when Abraham Lincoln was president – considering it a classic “American” dish.  They were harvested by walking through the marshes with a burlap sack and a gig.  A sack could bring a harvester about $10, but when the popularity of the dish increased, hand harvesting could not keep up with demand and terrapin farms began.  I know there were terrapin farms in the Carolinas, but there was one near Mobile, Alabama as well.  Apparently, terrapins existed outside of the Chesapeake – and that brings us back to Florida… we have them too!

Ornate Diamondback Terrapins Depend on Coastal Marshes and Sea Grass Habitats

There are seven subspecies of this brackish water turtle.  They range from Massachusetts to Texas.  It is the only resident brackish water species, spending its whole life in salt marshes (or mangroves in south Florida).  Florida has five of the seven subspecies, and three of the seven ONLY live in Florida – yet most of us do not know the animal exist.

 

Very few researchers worked with terrapins in this state – there was virtually nothing known about them in panhandle.  In 2005 I began to survey panhandle marshes to see if terrapins existed here.  I grew up in the panhandle, and like so many others, had never seen or heard of one.  I asked local fishermen who use to gillnet the marshes back in the 1950s and 1960s (when it was allowed) if they were aware of this this turtle.  I asked them “did you ever capture a terrapin?” They did not know what I was talking about.  And then I showed them a picture… “OH… yea, we did catch these once in a while – what are they called again? Terrapins?”.  This was a game changer for me in terrapin education – show them a terrapin and ask if they have ever seen a turtle that looks like this.

 

The response was still “what is that? It’s beautiful!”… and they are.  Terrapins have light colored skin with dark specks or bars – a really pretty cool looking turtle.  Oh, and they are in the panhandle, just not in big numbers – or, at least, we have not found them in big numbers 😊.

 

These brackish water turtles spend their entire lives in a marsh system feeding on mollusk and crustaceans.  Like map turtles (their nearest cousins), the females are larger with wide heads for crushing the shells of their prey.  They are considered an important member of the ecosystem in that the reduction of terrapins can cause an increase in the marsh periwinkle (a popular snail food) who would in turn stop feeding on leaf litter and attack the live plants themselves – threatening the existence of the marsh.  So, they are important predators on marsh grazers.  Not having a lot of trees in a salt marsh, you do not see them basking on logs as you do with other riverine turtles.  They do, however, exit the water and bury in the mud/sand for long periods to bask.

A baby terrapin.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

After mating, the females usually leave the marsh for the open estuary, swim along the shorelines looking for high/dry ground for nesting.  More often than not, these are sandy beaches – but they have been known to dig nest in crushed shell mounds, dredge spoil islands, along highways, backyards, and even runways of airports – wherever “high and dry” can be found in a marsh.  In Louisiana a lady found one roaming around inside her outdoor shower – good luck nesting there!

 

The females lay about 10 eggs in a clutch and will lay more than one clutch each year.  Baby terrapins are one of the coolest looking turtles you will see.  They emerge from the nest in late summer and fall, hiding in the wrack debris along the shoreline.  It is believed they actually have a more terrestrial life early on before entering the water and living out their lives in the marsh.

 

The popularity of turtle soup has waned since the Civil War, as have the wild harvest and aquaculture projects.  However, the turtle is still under tremendous pressure from humans.  We began using wired crab traps in the 1950s and terrapins have a habit of swimming into these, where they drown.  The problem is not that large in Florida, but in the Chesapeake, they have found as many as 40 terrapins in one crab trap!  Most of these are “ghost crab traps” – ones that “got away” from the owner but are still harvesting marine live – including crabs.  One paper indicated that in the early part of the 21st century, in one year in the Chesapeake, over 900,000 blue crabs died in ghost crab traps – a commercial value of about $300,000.  So, the ghost crab trap is a problem whether it kills terrapins, redfish, flounder, or blue crab.  Today, many crab traps have biodegradable panels so that if the trap “gets away” it will eventually breakdown and not capture organisms like terrapins.  In the Chesapeake many states require crab traps to have a By-Catch Reduction Device (BRD) to keep terrapins out – but allow crabs in.  They are not required in Florida, however FWC will provide them for free if you are interested.  I have some in my office in Pensacola and more than willing to give them to you.  FWC also hosts crab trap removal programs, and I encourage you to participate in these.

This orange plastic rectangle is a Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD) used to keep terrapins out of crab traps – but not crabs.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

A bigger issue for Florida is the land-based predators.  As we moved closer and closer to the salt marshes, we built bridges and roads that allowed land-based predators to reach the nesting beaches they previously did not have access to.  Raccoons in particular are a big problem, depredating as many as 90% of the terrapin nests.  Poaching for the pet trade is rising and FWC is working on this.  Several major arrests have been made in Florida in recent years.  It is illegal to sell Florida turtles, so do not buy them if you see them being sold somewhere.  Report the activity to FWC.

 

Due to all of this, terrapins afford some form of protection in each of the coastal states where they exist.  Some list them as “endangered” or “threatened”.  In Florida, they do not have this label, but they are protected by FWC.  No one is allowed to have more than two in their possession, and you are not allowed to have any eggs.

 

It is an amazing turtle.  I currently conduct a citizen science program monitoring them in the western panhandle.  I have a lot of eager volunteers wanting to see their first one in the wild.  I hope they do soon.  I hope they hang around long enough for everyone to see one in the wild.

Gopher Tortoises

Gopher Tortoises

In ecology, a “keystone” species is as crucial to an ecosystem as the central stone in this arch.

In architecture, a “keystone” is the top, central block in an arch structure, the one that holds the entire building up. Without it, the bricks around it collapse. With it, there is nothing stronger.

So, when you hear an animal referred to as a “keystone” species, it should get your attention—especially when that species is listed as threatened by state and federal wildlife agencies. In northwest Florida, one of the species upon which the entire longleaf ecosystem is built is the humble gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).

Gopher tortoises are long-lived, protected by their thick shells and deep burrows. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Once hunted for food and currently in competition with humans for buildable land, this long-lived reptile is an architect in its own right. The tortoises are called “gophers” because of their tunnel building and burrow construction expertise. The tortoises spend about 80% of their time near their burrows, of which they have multiple over their lifetimes. Being a cold-blooded reptile, the burrows allow the tortoises a place to live in the temperature-regulated soil.

The average adult gopher tortoise is about 9-11 inches long, although they can be larger. They have thick feet resembling those of an elephant, and scaly front legs used for digging and burrowing. They are tan, brown, or gray, and live in dry, sandy, upland habitats. Their propensity for dry forestland is typically why their populations are in peril, as this is also the best land for building and development.

The average gopher tortoise’s burrow is 6.5 feet deep and 15-40 feet long, and provides habitat for 350 other species! Those commensal species that share its burrow are mostly invertebrates, but at least 50 are larger backboned species like frogs, snakes, rabbits, and burrowing owls. During forest fires, there are stories of multiple species—from deer and snakes and turtles—calling a truce and hiding in the burrows together until the flames blow over.

Gopher tortoises are nesting right now–be sure to observe from a distance!

Right now—from May to July—is nesting season for gopher tortoises. They lay eggs in the soft sand of their burrow apron, which is the triangular spread of loose sand at the opening of the burrow. Eggs incubate all summer and emerge between August and November. The newly hatched tortoises can expect to live 40 to 60 years in the wild. They live on a variety of grasses and low-growing plants native to longleaf pine, oak forests, and coastal dunes, including wiregrass and gopher apple. They are adapted to routine fires, as they are safe in their burrows and the new growth after a burn provides an abundance of their grassy food sources.