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Gopher Tortoise Fact File

Gopherus polyphemus

Weight

5.5kg

(12.1lbs)

Length

10-24cm

(4-15in)

Lifespan

Wild 50-70 years

Captive 86 years

Diet

Herbivore

Grasses, Herbs, Berries

Conservation Status

IUCN

Vulnerable

The gopher tortoise is a resident of the south-east corner of the United States where they live in sand dunes which allow them to dig their burrows. These provide a home not only for the tortoises but 400 other species.

These tortoises are herbivores and feed on a range of grasses, herbs and berries helping to spread their seeds through the ecosystem.

Animals which reach adulthood may reach ages of between 50 and 70 years but only 6% of hatchlings survive to this stage and many eggs are lost before even making the hatchling stage.

Unfortunately the IUCN list this species as vulnerable due to the ongoing threats of habitat loss and vehicle strikes.

Read on to learn more about these terrific tortoises.

Appearance

The forefeet of the gopher tortoise are flattened both of which are adaptations to help them with burrowing in the soil. Their hind feet are smaller.

On the back of the gopher tortoise is a hard shell as in most tortoises. This has a dome shape. It is colored grayish brown in older individuals with younger animals have a more yellowish brown shell. On the underside it is colored a dull yellow.

Younger individuals have a pattern or growth rings on their shell which can help to estimate their age but these gradually wear smooth in older individuals.

At the end of the body is a short tail.

An average gopher tortoise measures 10-24cm (4-15in) long and weighs 5.5kg (12.1lbs). Females tend to be larger than males though the male has a longer tail.

Diet


Gopher tortoises are herbivores which feed on grasses, herbs and berries. Over 300 different plants have been recorded. Small amounts of carrion and insects have been recorded in the diet, most commonly that of females during nesting season.

They show little need to drink water instead obtaining this from the plants they eat and dew on the leaves.

Gopher tortoises play an important role in the ecosystem by spreading the seeds of plants in their droppings

Gopher Tortoise

Range

Gopher tortoises are found in the south-east corner of the United States. Their range takes in parts of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Habitat

They make their home in sand dunes and require areas with deep, sandy soil to allow them to dig their burrows. These animals also require open areas where they can sit in the sun to thermoregulate.


Much of their time is spent in a burrow. This may be shared with small mammals, toads and burrowing owls. Up to 400 different species have been recorded sharing their burrows.

They are skilled diggers and create their own burrow.

Each burrow includes a tunnel entrance reaching up to 12m (40ft) long with a chamber at its end. The end of the burrow may sit up to 3m (10ft) below the surface which helps keep the temperature and humidity in the chamber constant.

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Reproduction

Mating takes place from April through to November with the nest built in early summer. When a male finds a potential mate he will head bob, nip her shell and rub pheromones from scent glands on to her legs.

Males and females will both have multiple partners during each season and some clutches include eggs fertilized by different males.

The nest in a shallow pit in to which they can deposit 2-7 eggs. These eggs are the size of ping-pong ball. They incubate for a period of 80 to 100 days with this variance attributed to the latitude at which the nest is located. Nests in the south incubate quicker.

Temperature dependent gender determination is exhibited by this species. This means only males are produced at lower temperatures while only females hatch at higher temperatures. They have a low pivotal temperature of 29 degrees.

The parents have no role in care for the young. The female will return to dig the young out of the nest and it is often close to her burrow to allow for this.

Maturity is reached between 16 and 21 years old. Males tend to mature earlier than females.

As few as 6% of hatchlings will reach maturity due to high levels of predation. Up to 87% of eggs are taken by predators before they hatch.

Behavior

During periods of extreme heat they will retreat in to a burrow. When the weather is cold they will sit at the entrance of their burrow to warm up. They then have sufficient energy to head off to find food.

When the weather is cold they will often remain in their burrow.

Males tend to be more active than females especially during the breeding season.

Gopher Tortoise

Predators and Threats

Few animals are able to prey on adults. Hatchlings face a range of threats from various reptiles, birds and mammals. Fire ants affect eggs.

These animals are considered to have suffered significant declines from their former population.

A major factor in their decline has been the reduction in suitable habitat. They are also common victims of vehicle strikes.

Small numbers may be taken for the pet trade and use for food.

In parts of their range they are occasionally painted and at times this has become a trend affecting large numbers of tortoises. This can affect their ability to absorb nutrients for the sun as well as causing health issues.

Florida is the last stronghold of the species and they must be relocated before development in their habitat. They are protected by law in this state.

Quick facts

The gopher tortoise is the state reptile of Georgia and the state tortoise in Florida.

These reptiles are also known as the hoover chicken.

Their scientific name polyphemus comes from a cave-dwelling giant, Polyphemus in Greek mythology, a reference to their burrowing lifestyle.

They are one of five tortoises species found in North America.

The lineage of the gopher tortoise dates back around 60 million years.

Gopher Tortoise

Photo Credits

Top and Middle One

Public Domain

Middle Two and Bottom

© Hans Hillewaert

References

Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. 1996. Gopherus polyphemusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 1996: e.T9403A12983629. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.1996.RLTS.T9403A12983629.en. Downloaded on 27 August 2021.

Outdoor Alabama. 2021. Gopher Tortoise | Outdoor Alabama. [online] Available at: <https://www.outdooralabama.com/turtles/gopher-tortoise> [Accessed 27 August 2021].

WildArk. 2021. Fascinating Facts: Gopher Tortoise – WildArk. [online] Available at: <https://wildark.org/journals/fascinating-facts-gopher-tortoise/> [Accessed 27 August 2021].

Lazzari, A. 2017. "Gopherus polyphemus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed August 26, 2021 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Gopherus_polyphemus/

Bowerman, M., 2021. Wildlife officials: Seriously, stop painting turtle shells. [online] USA TODAY. Available at: <https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/08/12/wildlife-officials-seriously-stop-painting-turtle-shells/88617598/> [Accessed 27 August 2021].

Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission. 2021. Gopher Tortoise. [online] Available at: <https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/reptiles/gopher-tortoise/> [Accessed 27 August 2021].

Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission. 2021. Gopher Tortoise Program. [online] Available at: <https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/gopher-tortoise/> [Accessed 27 August 2021].

Public Affairs Office, 2021. Fact Sheet on Gopher Tortoise, a dry-land turtle | North Florida ESO Jacksonville. [online] Fws.gov. Available at: <https://www.fws.gov/northflorida/gophertortoise/gopher_tortoise_fact_sheet.html> [Accessed 27 August 2021].

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