Dig Deeper

Overview Taxonomy

Overview

“Where I live”

The gopher tortoise is the only land tortoise native to the southeastern United States. It inhabits a variety of forest and other habitats and is considered a keystone species of the longleaf pine forests of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The Maryland Zoo features gopher tortoises among its Animal Ambassadors, which are introduced to audiences in education programs on and off grounds.

“How I live there”

Gopher tortoises are best described as solitary homebodies. They live alone, stay within their own territories, and rarely encounter other gopher tortoises except during mating season. They prefer habitat where the tree canopy is thin, sunlight filters through, and the soil is sandy. This provides them with the best conditions for digging, basking, nesting, and foraging on low-growing plants. Periodic forest and bush fire actually benefit gopher tortoises because this helps keep the understory clear and encourages new plant growth.

Gopher tortoises can be identified by their stumpy, elephantine feet and forelimbs that look like miniature shovels. They use their forelimbs to dig deep burrows in the sandy soil and they spend much of their time underground. Most gopher tortoise burrows are about 15 feet long and 6.5 feet deep, but some have measured up to 40 feet in length. Inside these subterranean homes, temperature and humidity remain relatively stable year-round, allowing the tortoises to survive extreme temperatures, drought, and even fire, not to mention unwanted attention from predators.

During the day when conditions are favorable, gopher tortoises come out to bask in the sun and to forage. They like to stay close to home, typically foraging within about 160 feet of their burrows. When it rains, they will drink rainwater that pools nearby, but they otherwise get all the water they need from the plants that they eat.

These are long-lived tortoises, with a lifespan of 40 to 60 years in the wild.

“Making my mark”

Longleaf pine forests are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, and that is largely due to the presence of gopher tortoises. They are considered a keystone species because so many other species are dependent on their burrows for refuge. More than 350 species – including burrowing owls, Florida mice, indigo snakes, rabbits, gopher frogs, and many types of invertebrate – are known to shelter inside gopher tortoise burrows, sometimes when the tortoise is in residence and sometimes once the burrow is abandoned. Remove gopher tortoises from the ecosystem, and many other species might decline as well.

“What eats me”

Gopher tortoise eggs and hatchlings are an easy meal for all sorts of predators, including raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, wild boar, skunks, hawks, bald eagles, and snakes. It is estimated that a female gopher tortoise only lays a successful clutch of eggs about once a decade. Adult gopher tortoises are less vulnerable to predation because of their hard shells and because they spend so much time underground, but they too can be killed by coyotes, bobcats, or domestic dogs and cats. Human disturbance also threatens gopher tortoises and, historically, human predation has been a primary cause of declining gopher tortoise populations.

Raising Young

Gopher tortoises play no role in raising their young, but females carefully excavate nests and cover the eggs, which at least gives offspring a fighting chance at life. Females nest in open, sunny locations, frequently in the soft mound of sand at the entrance to their burrows. They lay one clutch of eggs per year, sometime between May and July. The time of breeding and nesting varies throughout the tortoise’s range. Eggs incubate for 80 to 110 days before hatching, and incubation temperature determines the sex of the baby turtles. Hatchlings spend two days in the nest before emerging to forage. From the moment they emerge, they are on their own.

Conservation

Gopher tortoises are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, the world’s leading conservation organization. They also have state listings of either threatened or vulnerable in every state where they reside, and are listed as regionally threatened, or threatened in parts of their range, by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Between the late 1800s and the late 1990s, gopher tortoise populations declined by about 80% across their range, due mainly to habitat destruction, habitat degradation, and human predation. The single largest contributor to their decline was the drastic reduction over the same period of time of longleaf pine forests. This forest type has been disappearing not only in the wake of development but also because of poor management practices, including fire suppression.

Today, more than 80% of remaining gopher tortoise habitat is privately owned. The good news for gopher tortoises is that state and federal agencies are working with private land owners to restore longleaf pine forest across the Southeast. Prescribed burning is one management strategy now being utilized to improve the health of existing longleaf pine forest. Restoration of this important habitat type will go a long way toward boosting gopher tortoise population numbers and will help many other species as well, including red cockaded woodpeckers, black pine snakes, bobwhite quail, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and dusky gopher frogs, just to name a few.

Taxonomy

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Subphylum: Vertebrata
  • Class: Reptila
  • Genera: Gopherus
  • Species: polyphemus