Gopher Tortoise

The Gopher tortoise gets its name from its ability to dig, and live in large, deep burrows. This ability to excavate is unusual in the world of tortoises. When I spotted my first wild Gopher tortoise, it proved that it has something else in common with its furry namesake.

During a drive through Sanibel Island in Florida, it is likely that you’ll happen across the big, fluorescent yellow diamonds warning of tortoises crossing the road. Never having seen a wild tortoise, I was enthusiastically searching the road for small brown, slow moving speed humps.

Warning!
Warning!

During an afternoon drive down the Sanibel main road, I spotted a man with a toddler following a large tortoise along the grass verge. This was surprising in itself but the real shock for me was the size of the tortoise. It was not up to Galapagos standards but was considerably bigger than those that I had seen in pet shops as a child. It wasn’t possible to stop the car without creating an incident, but now I knew where to look for them. The following day we did the drive again, I spotted another tortoise in a similar area and pulled in to a nearby car park.

When the car was safely parked, I leaped out, camera in hand, and ran down the grassy verge. After all, it is a tortoise so it is definitely not going anywhere fast. I spotted the brown shape ahead and slowed while I adjusted the camera settings. At the same time, another car pulled over and a guy, probably in his mid-50s sprang out. I saw the tortoise stretch its wrinkled neck up and study us with its black beady eyes as we approached it from two different directions.

Suddenly, to my shock, rather than pull the scrawny neck and head into the safety of its shell, the tortoise stood proud of the ground, turned and ran. I am far from fit, but I sincerely believed that I had the beating of a large tortoise. Realising with horror that this lumbering reptile with 2 inch legs was actually outpacing all me, I grappled for my camera to get a shot of it before it disappeared from view. I turned the focus ring, but the view finder was suddenly filled by action man from Indianapolis, who charged in to the long grass in hot pursuit. “Boy, did you see that thing go?” he boomed. “Those things are fast!” Sure enough, the tortoise had shown us a clean pair of heels and disappeared down a burrow. The experience taught me a few things.

  1. Tortoises are much faster than I had thought they were
  2. Tortoises live in burrows and disappear down them pretty quickly
  3. Not everyone understands how to approach wildlife
DSC_0759
The burrow in sand and shells

As I walked back to the car, feeling a little dejected, I spotted a second large tortoise grazing on the central reservation. This time I was alone and this tortoise was a little more tolerant of the strange man lying down, with a camera as traffic roared by.

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Adult Gopher tortoise, trimming the grass

The Gopher tortoise is a resident of Florida, southern Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and the parts of Louisiana. It is the only species of tortoise to be found in eastern USA. They grow up to 14.5 in. (37 cm) and can weigh up to 30 lb. (13.6 Kg) and live for close to 100 years.

Florida state law protects the threatened Gopher tortoise and their burrows. This extends to mandating the safe removal and re-homing if development encroaches on tortoise habitats. Capture and release is strictly controlled by permit. The Gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species due to their role in shaping the habitat for other species. There are around 350 different species that use active or abandoned tortoise burrows, including invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and even the burrowing owl.

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Pattern on the adult tortoise scute

After a couple of days had passed, I returned to the site where I had been outrun by my first tortoise. I wanted to take a photograph of the burrow to add to this blog. My speedy friend was not on show, but I was amazed to find a baby Gopher tortoise, no bigger than my fist, nibbling young grass shoots nearby. It was very happy to be photographed, no doubt proud of the extra splash of colour that young ones display.

The carapace (upper shell) of the Gopher is covered by large, patterned scutes, or scales. In the adult tortoise these scutes are dull brown but in the young tortoise they are patterned with shades of brown and yellows. Each scute has rings, almost like a fingerprint, which although related to growth, are no guide to the tortoise’s age, as they better reflect food availability rather than time.

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Young Gopher

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As with so many threatened species, habitat preservation is critical, but tortoises can be helped by us in simple ways. If you see a tortoise happily feeding in the wild, leave it alone. It isn’t uncommon to see these creatures crossing the road in areas where they live. If so and if you can catch them, do help them cross safely but never alter their direction of travel or remove them to another environment. Leave their burrows alone, even if you see the not uncommon sight of a rattlesnake disappearing down the hole. It may be sharing the burrow, in harmony with a tortoise. Finally, avoid doing what one well-meaning but misguided tourist did. Confusing the tortoise for a turtle, the poor creature was “returned” to the Gulf of Mexico. Its shell serves as a permanent reminder of that sorry incident at the CROW wildlife clinic on Sanibel Island.

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David

I am a wildlife blogger and world traveler, using images & stories to inspire wild connections.

4 Comments

  1. Kathleen W Lauretano

    Could not help chuckling at the description of two grown men trying to outrun a Gopher Tortoise. My first glimpse of one was while driving our Black Lab home from a romp at a local field in Lecanto, FL. We had recently relocated south from CT. The movement of some well camouflaged creature marching along the embankment peak running parallel to the street made me do a double take and I gasped, slamming on the brakes and then pulling to the side of the road, rolling down the passenger window to get a better look. “Son-of-a-Sea-Cook if that is not a tortoise!” I exclaimed grabbing my cell phone to take a picture or two. Maggie, the Lab in back was serenely observing my every move, not noticing the tortoise that I realized was beating feet at an accelerated pace as if on a mission to avoid nosey women hell-bent on a photo op. I had to put the car back in gear and park ahead of it. Exiting and striding up the hill I realized I had not parked far enough ahead as it was already passing me in high gear still. Darned if the thing was not sprinting along the embankment and then it made a 90 degree turn to bolt across the small field for a pasture fence line. I broke into a lumbering run, breathing heavily due to my 65 years and excess 80lbs I carried by then on my once slender frame. Did I mention that I used to be a long distance runner in my youth and well into my 30’s? Times long gone – the tortoise was going to outrun me and give me a heart attack besides. Only by cutting across the field on a diagonal was I able to shorten our distance apart enough that the escapee stopped dead and withdrew into its shell, not interested in the photo op. I stood back from it a fair distance and snapped my pictures of all sides, maintaining what I hoped was a not too stressful proximity. I guessed right, as the head and legs reappeared and my new buddy gazed at me with a baleful and jaded eye while calculating whether or not I was a true danger. Deciding not, the lovely creature, which I had snapped more photos of when it re-emerged, began to sprint again as I put the camera on video mode and caught its escape in action without having to take another step myself, thank heavens! My breathing was returning to normal. Realizing I was not following, the tortoise slowed and began grazing its way towards that fence line where two horses and a pony were observing the approach. It was then I noticed the giant hole and pile of sand at the foot of a fencepost and realized Tortie was on its way home to a burrow. I walked back to the car where Maggie was gazing wistfully after the tortie, having realized Mom was chasing something that was ALIVE. I drove us home and hurried to my computer to identify and learn all I could about this wonderful creature. Maggie tracks them now and kisses their shells when she finds them. She will sit or lie down next to them retracted into the shell as she stare expectantly at me catching up, waiting to be praised for her brilliance. I only take her on leash now for fear of 1)losing her when she picks up the scent and takes off, and 2) I am not sure if she kisses the shells just because she is proud of her success and wants to be kind greeting her prize, or if she is licking it because she mulls over visions of Tortie soup. We can’t have the dog harming these gifts from the Creator. Yes, you are correct, the Gopher Tortoise is a candidate for the US Olympic Track Team and puts people and rabbits to shame in foot racing.

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