Please Don't Call Me a Turtle, I'm a Gopher Tortoise.
Updated: Mar 26
Florida is the main home for gopher tortoises, one of five tortoise species in the country - all in the Gopherus family.
These adorable moving mobile homes are an extremely vital part of our ecosystem. In Florida, they are called a “keystone species.” A keystone species, named for the upper stone in an arch upon which all the other stones are supported and kept in place, is used to describe an animal where the survival of many plants and animals are dependent on it. In the case of gopher tortoises, there are 350 species that need a gopher tortoise to survive, whether that is a home in its burrow or a plant dependent on the tortoise to disperse seeds.
Besides animals that live in the burrow with the tortoise (gopher frogs, gopher crickets, Florida mice and many other small critters) animals that normally utilize burrows can be found in there as they rest or are taking shelter from a forest fire. These can include the indigo snake (a very threatened animal that actually depends on gopher tortoise burrows), other snakes like racers, ratsnakes, pit vipers, burrowing owls, rabbits, skunks, armadillos, etc.
Gopher tortoises are active all year, but do spend 80% of their time in the burrow, which is a cool place in the summer and a warm place in the cold days we have. Which is funny if you think of it. If they are like most people in here that don't like hot, humid weather, then why after all the millenia they've been here did they not move? The one thing they like is the sun and because they depend on that to control their body heat. When it's not raining and there's no hurricanes in the area, they like to come out in the morning and warm up, then forage for food. They're safely ensconced from the brutal midday sun in their naturally air conditioned burrow.
If you are to come across a tortoise meandering around while viciously stabbing at food, you are not allowed to touch, feed, bother, or harass them. Fortunately enough for us, taking pictures is perfectly acceptable. In fact, Florida Fish and Wildlife has a “citizen scientist” smartphone app where you can send in a picture and the location. This allows them to keep track of our little guys with our help. I’ve been able to do it a handful of times and I always feel good afterwards. If you’re interested, here is more information:
Burrows are off limits as well. If possible, there should be an area of 25 feet around it that shouldn’t be disturbed. If yard work needs to be done within that diameter, leave the sandy area outside the opening alone. If it’s at the right time of year, there might be eggs laid somewhere around there. If you have a tortoise burrow on your property, sit back and enjoy watching your roommate. The only time a burrow can be relocated is for development and construction, and it involves paying for a gopher tortoise agent and a special permit. If you see a tortoise burrowing outside your house or pool and are worried about damage to property, from what I’ve read, it really just doesn’t happen. Tortoises dig down anywhere from 20-50 feet at a 45 degree angle. There would be much more damage in getting him out and relocated, as the burrow must also be dug down to remove any other animals and they use a backhoe.
If you see one crossing the road, you can go fetch it and take it in the direction that it was headed. However, these are stubborn little creatures and they may change their mind so make sure they continue on. Sometimes I’ve found tortoises walking down the road instead of the grass. I give them an A+ for figuring out that the road is easier (lazy bums), and when I move them back to the grass, they pretend they’re going to stay there, but when they think it’s safe, they move back to the road. In that case, I hang back walking, and when they move towards the road, I move into their line of sight on the road so they veered back to the grass. The only time you can physically move a tortoise away from where it lives is if it is injured. There’s a link where FWC shows what region you live in. You can call them to ask where the nearest rehab facility is. Be sure to note the location where he was found because when he’s better, they’ll return him to his homestead.
And, as cute as they are, it might be tempting to take one home as a pet, that is illegal. Tortoises are endangered in all of the southeastern states that they are endemic to. If they are taken out of the wild, their burrows will be in disrepair and might not protect local species. They have a more important role to play in the wild. If you find yourself really wanting a tortoise, there are many that can be kept as pets, and in all sizes...up to the 2nd and 3rd largest species on the planet!
If you should come across a dead tortoise, even if it’s been dead for years, it needs to be reported as well. And if it’s been long dead and you think the shell would be awesome to keep, guess what? You have to have a permit. This is probably to protect the person who wants the souvenir from future legal problems. I wasn't kidding when I said that they were protected!
For more information on gopher tortoises from Florida Fish and Wildlife:
Find out your FWC region and find a rehabber: http://myfwc.com/contact/fwc-staff/regional-offices/ (Good to keep handy in case you come across any other injured wildlife.)
To report illegal activity concerning any wild animal, not just tortoises, call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922
When they aren’t digging a burrow in a residential area humming “Won’t you be my neighbor”, you can find them and their homes in a lot of areas in uplands habitats - which includes pastures, fields, sandhill, scrubs, scrubby flatwoods, pine mixed hardwoods, dry prairies, coastal dunes, and forests. The perfect area would be a sandy and well-drained - and maintained by forest fires. Controlled burns keep trees, shrubs, and brambles from growing too high and interfering with the tortoises ability to move and forage for food. Studies have shown that forest fires helps the health of the environments by being regenerative. Their burrows are deep enough that all the neighbors can come in for shelter from the fires. The longest burrow found was 48 feet long but most are around 15 feet long and six and a half feet deep.
If you drive by and see dirt flying in the air for no apparent reason, you are seeing a tortoise digging out his home! I have even seen a baby working on their burrow on the Suncoast Parkway. It’s a lot of fun to watch because they always seem so angry and frustrated to me. It’s also common to see one walking with sand on their shell. I think that may be from leaving the burrow, but if it’s a lot, he’s been doing some home maintenance or digging a new burrow. They usually have seven to nine burrows. Males may have more. I heard that they might start listing vacation rentals on Airbnb.
They have a defined territory with the male having a larger - up to an eight acres span. This probably explains the multiple burrows, especially if a property tour from the owner
introduces him to some of his female neighbors. A female's territory can overlap a male's territory without problem. Unless she is expecting him to protect her. If her territory is in his and another male walks in, her "knight in shining armor" will go after the intruder, not to protect her, but to only protect his territory. There is a lot of head bobbing, head butting and ramming, and pushing until the intruder leaves. The worst case scenario is for one to be flipped on his back. If he can't roll over or isn't rolled over, it becomes a death sentence.
They are moderately sized and are around nine to ten inches long at adult length. They are also terrestrial. The easiest way to tell the difference between them and aquatic turtles is very easy. First, aquatic turtles shells are more flattened while the tortoise has a higher shell. And while this is just a personal observation, turtles seem to look perpetually annoyed. Finally, the feet are key. Turtles have webbed feet while tortoises have stumpy feet. The back legs are elephantine with the whole sole of the foot touching the ground. The front legs are built to dig, so they’re more shovel-like with prominent scales and big claws. They do live in the sandy soil near beaches and people, thinking they’re sea turtles (sea turtles have flippers, by the way) will take them to the water. Since they are terrestrial, heavier with no webbed feet or the ability to move the legs they have like they need to, they tend to sink instead. I blame the parental abandonment. Swimming lessons at the YMCA aren't that much!
The State Tortoise of Florida (the only tortoise of Florida) loves to chow down and eat grasses, the flowers, fruits and leaves of herbaceous plants and shrubs like asters and legumes, daisies, clover, peas, cat briar, blueberries and palmetto berries, as well as stinging nettle, prickly pear cactus and pine needles. Because they get water from plants and dew, tortoises rarely drink water. And as they waddle around, so they must defecate, so they must spread. The plants often times are dependent on animals that eat them to make sure they survive. A lot of times you can follow a gopher tortoise's trail by the plants growing there. They are also landscape artists around their burrows.
They are slow to grow and do not reach sexually maturity until at least nine years old. Males has a concave bottom shell (or plastron) and females are flat. I would imagine this is to help males with being able to mount a female and gives the female more room to carry the eggs. In 1966, a man by the name of Affenberg witnessed the mating rituals and described them much to my delight because it was funny. He described a scene where the male walked around in circles bobbing his head until a female enters the picture and approaches him. As she comes closer, he starts bobbing more and more. Soon, they are together and he greets her by biting her leg. After he does that, she leaves! Yup, she walks backward while stretching her hind legs in a semicircle. Sometime during the journey, the male tries to mounts her, usually unsuccessfully. He bites her again and her semicircle gets tighter and tighter until the male is successful. I have my doubts on the circles. This was an observance from 1966 and still, we do not know much about the courtship of gopher tortoises.
With that blissful glow that gravid tortoises have, she digs a hole near her burrow entrance and lays them. Then she covers them up and goes on with her life. Gopher tortoises lay an average of six eggs, but the range is three to 14. Though the eggs are near the female’s burrow, around 90% will be destroyed or eaten by some of the following animals: armadillo, raccoons, foxes, skunk, and alligators. Of those that do hatch, only 6% lives to over a year. Life is tough for these little cuties. Like many reptiles, gender is determined by the temperature they are incubated at. Above 86 degrees, paint the eggs pink, below 86 degrees and they will be blue. If it’s around 86, then there will be a mixed bunch. As we get warmer due to climate change, there will be problems as more of the eggs hatch out as females. Climate change is always spoken of in big changes. It is also about little things like this, too.
When they are startled or defending themselves, they quickly tuck their heads in and legs into their shell and the legs fold perfectly to protect the head. When this happens there is a "whooshing" sound. This is the air being expelled from the lungs. There is only so much room in that shell and a head and lungs full of air will not fit. I've carried a few across the street and I have found they only remained in their shell a minute or less. Even as I was carrying them, I could see them move their legs and poke their heads out a little. They are very curious critters, When the feel safe, they let their heads out and take-off. Fables may portray them as slow and patient but let me tell you, they can move! Their upper shell is called the carapace and their bottom is called the plastron. Contrary to cartoons, they can't leave home in an RV park and wander around without the baggage. Their spine and ribs are actually fused with their carapace. This leaves a hollow place for their organs.
As I touched on above, before land can be cleared and developed, permits must be obtained, tortoise burrows counted and relocations need to arranged. There are three types of relocations that can be done. The first involves removing the tortoise to a recipient site approved by the state. The second is relocation to a different area of the property. The third is a temporary relocation. When the work is done, the tortoise is brought back home where the gopher crickets throw him or her a welcome home party. Seriously though, before September 2007, the normal course of operation was for developers to pay Florida Fish and Wildlife for an incidental take. The numbers of burrows on the property were counted to determine the cost, and then the burrows were bulldozed over without removing gopher tortoises or other animals that were in the burrow. Since they spend 80% of their time in their homes, I can assume that there were a lot of tortoises who died slowly and any other animal trapped. Other tortoises were killed by construction equipment.
Thanks to these new permitting laws, hopefully these curious, adorable, and stubborn animals will be around for a long time to come.