It was an exciting day a few weeks ago when I spotted a gopher tortoise in my yard. The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is the only land tortoise east of the Mississippi River. (There are three others native to the western US). Its range includes southeastern tip of South Carolina down through central Florida and westward to southeast Louisiana. It is one of the few tortoises that actually dig burrows that are dug at about a 30-degree angle from the surface and average 30 feet long and 15 feet deep; other tortoises hide under vegetations or use very shallow burrows. Because of its long tunnels, the gopher tortoise is a keystone species in the ecosystem providing shelter for hundreds of different species, called “commensals,” which include various snakes, lizards, toads, frogs insects, mice and other small mammals, and even a couple birds—the Florida scrup jay and the burrowing owl. Some species are tenants that share the burrow while the tortoise is still living there, while others use only abandoned burrows.
The burrows provide shelter for the totoises and all their hangers-on from predators, fires, heat and cold. But when developers come into their habitat, the burrows can become tombs for the tortoises under the parking lots or buildings. There are various groups of people who are licensed to dig out the tortoises for relocation to certified recipient sites. Private property owners with suitable habitat greater than 40 acres can apply to be a certified tortoise site.
The gopher tortoise grows on average to be about slightly less than one foot long and weighs about 29 pounds, though they have been found to be as big as 16 inches. They reach sexual maturity between the ages of nine and 21 when their shells are about 9 inches long. These tortoises usually live for 60 years in the wild, but some in preserves or study areas have lived to 100 years.
When a female is ready to lay eggs, she’ll dig a shallow nest near her burrow and lay 4 to 7 eggs, which are about 2-inches in diameter and are more spherical than most eggs. The gender of the offspring is determined by the soil temperature during incubation. If the soil is warmer than 85 degrees the hatchlings will be female, but if the soil is cooler, the new tortoises will be males. The hatchlings will be 1 ½ to 2 inches long and will grow about ¾ of an inch per year until they reach maturity. Most new hatchlings will spend the first winter and maybe longer in their mother’s burrow.
In Florida gopher tortoises are categorized as a “Species of Special Concern” or “Threatened” depending on the list. This means that their current numbers are dropping, but researchers are not sure exactly how much; several studies presently being conducted on the tortoises are trying to more accurately answer this question. Loss of habitat is the primary cause of their endangerment. In the past many tortoises were killed either for food, or by people who were trying to kill the rattlesnakes that sometimes share their burrows. Now they are more often killed by cars or when landowners pave over their properties without an inspection.
Our tortoise-friendly neighborhood
Our 1.5-acre lot is long and narrow—it becomes narrower as it backs up to a 110-acre lake. In our front yard, we share a 1/10-acre natural pond with a neighbor and a shallow, wooded ravine about 30 to 40-feet wide between our lots serves as the overflow from the pond to the lake. In addition to this wooded ravine, we’ve allowed much of our lot to revert its natural state—mainly meadows and wooded areas. When we moved in, there was a 30 to 50-foot-wide St. Augustine lawn all the way down to the lake. Now there’s 6-foot wide path to the lake and the former lawn down there has begun its reversion back to forest with lots of elderberries, oak, sweet gum, and maple saplings, with a bramble of blackberries and other undergrowth. I found the tortoise on the path, but eventually it headed into the ravine. I’ve spotted a couple of likely places where its burrow could be, but will not tromp through the thick woods to find out for sure—I’ll let the ravine be as wild as it can be.
Our neighborhood was established in the mid 60s around three dammed, spring-fed lakes with a lot of open space. The lots across the streets from the lake lot owners are 3 to 5 acres and are zoned for horses. Next to the neighborhod is a 965-acre chunk of conservation land owned by our water mangement district. In looking at the tortoise relocations near our property, I found that two tortoises were relocated from near the community center (about a mile down the road) when they put in a cell tower there. I’ve also spotted some burrows dug into a sloping shoulder of the road down to the community center, so I’ll keep watching for more in our tortoise-friendly neighborhood.
We can all help the gopher tortoise
We can all help gopher tortoises by supporting organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the Florida Native Plant Society, which help preserve upland habitats and and restore native places within the gopher’s range. Private property owners can also help by preserving or creating likely habitat with open areas created by fire or mowing so there’s plenty of fresh, low vegetation for the tortoises to eat. This is what my husband and I have done with our sustainable landscaping practices, but you don’t need to have a large property to create tortoise habitat. I wrote about a group of volunteers who created a half-acre wildflower meadow in St. Augustine that has attracted a family of gopher tortoises. Also, if you happen to see a tortoise, or turtle for that matter, trying to cross a road, don’t question its motives; just help it safely across the street without changing the direction in which it was traveling—otherwise it will put itself in peril again trying to get to its destination.
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