Here are fun facts about what makes gopher tortoises so important. You can use this information to help educate others in your community. Visit the FWC’s Gopher Tortoise Program homepage for more information!.
Gopher tortoises are unique because they are the only North American 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 shovel-like front feet, elephant-like back legs, 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.
Tortoises dig their burrows in well–drained, sandy soils.
Yes, but only in soft sands.
Gopher 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. You can learn more about how to identify tortoise burrows at FWC’s education corner.
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!
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.
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!
Gopher tortoises are currently protected by federal law under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the Alabama counties west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers and in Mississippi and Louisiana. The eastern portion of the gopher tortoise’s range includes Alabama (east of the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers), Florida, Georgia, and southern South Carolina. In these areas, the gopher tortoise is now a candidate species for possible listing later under the ESA. In the western range states, west of the Tombigbee River in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, it will continue to be listed as threatened under the ESA. Gopher tortoises are state listed as Threatened in Florida.
Tortoises can bite if you put your finger near their mouth. When threatened, their first reaction is usually to hide in their burrow or shell.
No, they are a state threatened species and should be left alone in the wild. It is illegal to possess one without a permit from FWC.
Gopher tortoises have very wide flat front feet with long claws. They use them like shovels to dig their burrows.
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.
While tortoises generally do not share burrows, they are social animals and communicate with each other. 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.
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.
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.
No, its backbone and ribcage are connected to the shell, which is part of its body.
Most animals don’t bother the tortoises, and the tortoises don’t bother them. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Females dig the nest with their front legs.
The shells are very similar to a chicken egg in texture, but round and about the size of a ping pong ball.
The 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 or dig their own burrow.
Females can grow to be slightly larger than males.
Gopher tortoises release chemical smells called pheromones which initiate courtship. Both males and females use pheromones during the breeding season.
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.
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 may scare the other off.
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 even excrement.
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 means their metabolism slows down and they don’t need to eat much. 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 usually stay within 160 feet of their burrow to find food. Tortoises eat a lot of bulk, usually green vegetation, but will search for specific foods to complete their dietary needs.
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.