cropped-5033625253_014b14bd09_z.jpgHere are fun facts about what makes gopher tortoises so important. You can use this information to help educate others in your community. For additional frequently asked questions about FWC’s conservation plan and permitting program for gopher tortoises, visit MyFWC.com/GopherTortoise.

General Information

What are the features of the gopher tortoise that makes it unique?

Gopher tortoises are unique because they are the only land tortoise found east of the Mississippi River. They can live to be more than 60 years old, and have been around for thousands of years. They can be distinguished by their coloring, their feet, and their non protruding beak. Most important, the gopher tortoise is a keystone species that over 350 other species may live with or depend on. The burrows they dig are home to other animals that would not survive without them, including the endangered Indigo Snake.

What kind of soil do tortoises usually dig their homes in?

Tortoises dig their burrows in well–drained, sandy soils.

Do gopher tortoises leave footprints in the sand?

Yes, but only in soft sands.

How much land does a gopher tortoise use?

A gopher tortoise may use a few acres of habitat for feeding, mating, and nesting. Tortoises may have more than one burrow, and may even return to burrows they had previously abandoned.

How do I know if I’m looking at a gopher tortoise burrow?

burrowGopher tortoise burrows have a distinctive half-moon shape, that closely resembles the profile of a gopher tortoise; the larger the burrow opening, the larger the tortoise that lives inside it.

How deep do gopher tortoise burrows go?

On average, a gopher tortoise burrow is 7 ½ feet deep and 15 feet long; some burrows have been recorded at more than 20 feet deep and 50 feet long!

What is a commensal?

Commensal species are those that benefit from the gopher tortoise, or its burrow, but neither harm nor benefit the gopher tortoise. Some commensal species are known as obligate commensals, meaning they would not exist without the gopher tortoise, and are only found in gopher tortoise burrows. Other “commensals” are actually mutualists, meaning that the gopher tortoise also benefits from their living in its burrow; these species usually eat potentially harmful parasites or insects that live in the burrow, or clean-up after the tortoise.

Do the other animals hurt the tortoises?

The majority of animals don’t bother the tortoises, and the tortoises don’t bother them; they all live together in a balanced ecosystem. When tortoises are young, and their shell is still soft, they can be eaten by raccoons, indigo snakes and other animals. Older tortoises can get mites and ticks but have very few predators.

Where can I see gopher tortoises in Florida?

Gopher tortoises are found in all 67 counties in Florida, but prefer high, dry, sandy places, such as longleaf pine and oak sandhills. Gopher tortoises are found in a variety of other habitats, including: pine flatwoods, scrub, scrubby flatwoods, xeric hammock, coastal uplands and dunes, dry prairies, pastures, and even some neighborhoods!

Is the gopher tortoise an endangered species?

Gopher tortoises are state listed as Threatened in Florida; this means that, without appropriate protections and conservation actions, the gopher tortoise could become Endangered. The gopher tortoise is federally listed as Threatened in the portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama found west of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers. In Florida, both the gopher tortoise and its burrow are protected by state law.

Did gopher tortoises live with the dinosaurs?

No. Although gopher tortoises belong to a group of land tortoises that originated in western North America nearly 60 million years ago, the last dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago.

Can you have them as pets?

No, they are a threatened species and should be left alone in the wild. It is illegal to possess one without a permit from FWC.

Biology

What do the toe nails look like? Why are they shaped that way?

Gopher tortoises have very wide flat front feet with long claws. They use them like shovels to dig their burrows.

Do gopher tortoises sneeze? What are some things that make them sick?

Yes, gopher tortoises sneeze! Just like all animals, viruses and bacteria can make gopher tortoises sick. One common disease prevalent in gopher tortoises is called Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD) – a contagious condition among tortoises that can result in occasional, and sometimes wide-spread, mortality.

Do gopher tortoises make any noises? How do they communicate?

Tortoises live alone so they don’t need to communicate very much. When mating, the males make noise, like peeping and clicking. They also perform a dance of sorts with head bobbing, leg kicking and even biting the female’s legs. All of this is to attract the female and prepare for mating. There is also a theory that they communicate with really deep noises that our human ears cannot hear.

Do they have eyelids or eyelashes? Do they close their eyes when they sleep? How long do they sleep if they do sleep?

Tortoises do have eyelids but, being reptiles, they have no eyelashes because they lack hair. They do sleep, but how long and how often depends on the season and the temperatures outside. They are cold-blooded reptiles that depend on the sun to warm them, and they can also get overheated. If it is too hot or too cold they will remain in their burrow and rest. In the winter, they may go into a hibernation-like state that includes intense relaxation, called aestivation.

Do they have teeth?

No, they do not have teeth. They have a beak that they use to break off leaves or fruit. Then they grind and swallow their food.

Can a tortoise leave its shell?

No, its backbone and ribcage are connected to the shell, which is part of his body.

Reproduction & Nesting

Male/female differences—where are eggs developed and stored inside the female before she lays the eggs?

Males have a dip in their underbelly or plastron, known as a concavity. This allows for them to stay mounted on the female during mating. A female’s plastron is flat. This is an x-ray of a female tortoise and you can see where she carries the eggs.

Where do gopher tortoises lay their eggs? Is there a diagram of the nesting site?

Tortoises lay their eggs in sandy soils that have lots of sunlight to keep them warm. Many lay their eggs in the apron, the mounded area in front of a burrow, but some will lay them in another sunny place. She does not tend to the eggs once they are laid.

How are the nesting sites dug by the females? Do they use their front legs or their back legs to dig?

Females dig the nest with their front legs.

How hard are the egg shells?

The shells are very brittle and round, about the size of a ping pong ball.

How do the baby tortoises break out of the shells? When they hatch do they leave the nest one at a time or in a group? What happens next?

hatchlingThe baby tortoises break out of their shell using an egg tooth, which is a sharp point on their nose that is lost shortly after hatching. The eggs must incubate, or stay buried for 70-100 days, and the temperature during this time determines sex. The eggs hatch over the next 20 days. Eggs are prone to being eaten by raccoons, opossums, and other scavengers. Once the eggs have hatched they may share the burrow with their mom, like other burrow buddies, or dig their own burrow.

Which are bigger males or females?

Females can grow to be slightly larger than males.

How do gopher tortoises find mates?

Gopher tortoises release a smell that initiates courtship. Both males and females excrete a fluid during breeding seasons.

Do male gopher tortoises fight for mates? Is there a dominate male or a dominate female if there are a lot of gopher tortoises living near each other? Is there any competition noted for the species?

Male gopher tortoises are known to compete for mates and can be aggressive toward other males. Male gopher tortoises have been known to ram and push each other, and do a lot of head bobbing and pooping; they may even try to flip each other over. Even females may threaten each other with head bobbing. Females have been known to compete for space. If another female is around an established female’s burrow, one will scare the other off.

Nutrition

What kind of plants do gopher tortoises eat?

Gopher tortoises eat low-growing, leafy plants, including: wiregrass, and other broad leaf grasses, gopher apples, blackberries and other fruits, as well as nettles and prickly pear. Tortoises are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will eat whatever they can find. They have been seen eating dead insects, small crabs, other carrion, and excrement.

How much food do gopher tortoises eat? Do they fast? Do they have to eat each day? Do they slow down their food consumption during the winter?

The amount of food a gopher tortoise eats depends on time of year, the age, and size of the animal. Tortoises may stay in their burrow for months during extreme conditions. During winter, when it is usually cold and dry, they become dormant; this includes slowing down their metabolic rates. Tortoises may also stay in their burrow during summer, when it is hot and dry. Daily activity and food consumption is highly temperature dependent. When foraging, tortoises can travel up to 160 feet to find food. Tortoises eat a lot of bulk, usually green vegetation, but will search for specific foods to complete their dietary needs.

Do gopher tortoises fart? Does their poop stink?

Tortoises do poop anywhere and everywhere, including in their burrow. Commensal beetles use a fungus to break it down and recycle it, so it does not build up. Gopher tortoise poop, like all animal’s poop, does smell. It is a natural function, just like farting, which they can also do.

Do they bite?

Tortoises can bite if you put your finger near their mouth. Usually, when threatened, their first reaction is to hide in their burrow or shell.