gopher tortoise, © George Heinrich

A Field Day with Gopher Tortoises

Defenders helps count gopher tortoise burrows

Defenders works to save wildlife every day, and we recently spent one of those days in a special and different way – the Florida staff ventured into the field to survey for gopher tortoises and their burrows at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve here in St. Petersburg.

It was slow going for us humans – searching for tortoise burrows while making our way through stands of dense saw palmetto, staying wary of ankle-grabbing logs and veering clear of prickly pear cactus wasn’t easy. But the gopher tortoise is finely adapted to this ancient scrub and sandhill habitat, as well as to other Florida natural communities. It was the subject of my master’s degree and a focal species in the consulting work I did before coming to Defenders, so it was great fun to see my colleagues now taking part for the first time in the burrow surveying, identification and data collection.Gopher Tortoise Range Map, ©USFWS

The gopher tortoise lives in dry, sandy uplands, such as pine flatwoods, scrub, oak-sandhills and coastal dunes of the southeastern United States. Human activities eliminated gopher tortoises from a significant portion of their historic range, but they still occur in Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, with the majority of the remaining population occurring in Florida, where they are listed as threatened by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The US Fish and Wildlife Service states that listing under the federal Endangered Species Act is warranted and should be extended to cover the tortoise’s entire range .

The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species because it is a pivotal member of its natural community. It creates burrows and disperses seeds, actions which contribute significantly to upland biodiversity. Gopher tortoises take refuge from extreme temperatures, fire, and predators in their burrows, as do nearly 400 other species, such as the Florida mouse, gopher frog, eastern indigo snake, diamondback rattlesnake, burrowing owl and bobcat. We got an up close and personal look at this aspect of tortoise ecology when an armadillo suddenly ran out of an old burrow and over one of our boots! Most animals retreat down the burrow when people are around, though I do recall an instance of mutual surprise when a rattlesnake ran over my own boot and into hiding.

Baby Gopher Tortoise, ©George HeinrichThe burrow survey at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, one of the last remaining natural areas in urban Pinellas County, Florida was conducted to determine the estimated tortoise population size and demographics, such as average age of the animals. This information can be used to improve habitat management and restoration efforts, and to determine if there is a healthy ratio of young tortoises to adults. Gopher tortoises may live to be over 60 and they usually don’t reach reproductive age and size until at least their teens, and sometimes 20 years of age. Also, they have very few young that survive predation at the egg and infant stage, so protection of all members of the colony is essential. My own research resulted in finding one of the two largest known clutches, 25 eggs, but generally only 8-12 eggs are in the hole dug out and covered over by the female tortoise.

Herpetologist George Heinrich oversaw the Boyd Hill survey, directing volunteers to walk specific management sections in all areas of the preserve that contain appropriate upland habitat. With the other volunteers we lined up in a row evenly spaced apart and walked straight ahead – as well as we could in dense vegetation — in a transect noting any burrows we found.

As we found them, we classified each burrow as active, inactive, or abandoned. The complete survey documented a total of 302 gopher tortoise burrows (239 active and 63 inactive) as well as more than 318 abandoned burrows. Based on this information, experts estimate that 151 tortoises are found on the preserve.

Defenders of Wildlife’s efforts to protect and recover the gopher tortoise is aimed at increasing the amount of habitat available by promoting acquisition of new public lands, working with landowners to establish conservation easements, assuring irresponsible road projects that fragment habitat and lead to roadkill are stopped or modified, and helping shape land use plans that protect important habitat and connections.

Gopher tortoise, © NASA

In order to reverse the continuing tortoise and habitat loss, Defenders is also trying to increase outreach to the public and land developers and let them know that gopher tortoises are actually a relatively adaptable animal that can coexist with humans.

Some people say that the gopher tortoise has celebrity appeal: its face looks a bit like E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial’s! But these tortoises aren’t just cute: they’re a vital part of Florida’s landscape, and that’s why it’s so important that we monitor and protect them.

Laurie Macdonald is the Florida Program Director at Defenders of Wildlife

The FWC has created a free smartphone application that provides information about Florida’s gopher tortoises. Using the Florida Gopher Tortoise app, you can help the FWC by recording the locations of gopher tortoises and their burrows. Simply take photos of those you encounter and submit them through the app. Using GPS coordinates captured by your phone, these photos will be incorporated into an interactive map, which will show where gopher tortoises occur


16 Responses to “A Field Day with Gopher Tortoises”

  1. Deborah MacDonald

    I live in Beverly Hills, Florida specifically in Pine Ridge. We have lot of gopher tortoises here. I have had to take many of them out of the road because some people won’t even stop for them. In Crystal River, where I used to work, I would see so many beautiful tortoises dead on Rte. 44. It beaks my heart. Gopher Tortoises are the most innocent and to me, the sweetest souls in Florida.

  2. Alexander Yeung

    These gopper tortise doesn’t deserve to be killed. Those driver didn’t let them pass is either stupid or a scum that have become a parasite.

  3. KsInfo

    I have had a fondness for tuletrs and tortoises since I was a child, owning a turtle pet. This was a very interesting story. Good that you have a tortoise project going. It is just part of their programming to fight and guard their mate I guess.

  4. Barb Matusik

    I live in Gilchrist County north of this area. We have seven acres of sand hill habitat and many of these wonderful creatures with holes of all sizes. They must be happy here as we have found many little ones over the years but have also seen the local red shoulder hawks go off with a few. We have stopped several times to help a jay-walking tortoise to the other side of Route 26.

  5. joan silaco

    any info on these under or over passes, where they create a path that is safe for turtle/tortise to cross? i think they created something like that in california or florida. may want to check with hsus people. i believe it was a girl that was deter- mined to alleviate the problem, a few years ago. i think the army of engineers was involved. may have been on gov’t property. but it was about crossing a highway. sorry i don’t have anything more specific. joan silaco

  6. Greywolf Borealis

    I have seen countless gopher tortoises crossing busy highways. I suppose their motivation is the same as the proverbial chicken. However, I always stop, get out of my car or motor home, pick up the tiny traveler and move him or her safely to the other side of the road.
    Unfortunately, for the gopher tortoise their habitat is where environmental and wildlife responsibility is the lowest in the country. There is no wonder why these animals are endangered.

  7. Betty

    I was in my yard, when this tortoises walked across my yard, it stopped and rested for a while then walked through to the neighbours. He or she was a lovely specimen and I didn’t know the name of it until I read this article. I took some pictures as well

  8. Cindy & Jim Maddox

    My husband & I purchased a home in Foley, Alabama Dec 2013.
    We discovered a gopher tourtise living under our air conditioner pad!
    We named him Foley!
    We love to see him in the yard! He’s quiet and does not eat much. We occasionally give him a little lettuce. 🙂

  9. Not said

    I love these creatures they are so cute and fun to watch who would want to hurt it?

  10. chris

    I have been feeding a gopher tortoise in my yard for 5 years. I read their suppose to mate from April to June. Mine which I use to call Sam but found out it;s Samantha mated in Oct. Gestation period is 80 to 100 days but thats once she lays her eggs right? How long before she lays her eggs. She lives right under my fence. She loves watermelon and banana’s. Am I wrong in feeding her? She also comes out and eats plants. I just figured it would keep her out of the road, which by the way I stop traffic to help them. Just love them.

  11. Kathy

    We have a baby how made his home in our yard. He does not burrow very deep so I worry about him getting stepped on or run over by the lawn mower. He does not travel very far. We have a bad rain storm today I hope he will be ok. We live in Port St Lucie florida

  12. Helen Bryan

    I live in Lakeland, and one came to our place this morning. He appears to have a sore hind leg as he seems to limp when he walks. So happy to have him here. I saw him yawn a few times, and have put greens out for him. Happy to have him visit.

  13. Ron haller

    Recently discovered a gopher turtle egg burrow uncovered by my above ground pools drain hose. Moved the hose and gently replaced eggs back in to burrow and covered with sand. There were about 10 ping pong ball sized eggs I could see. I hope they hatch. I marked the location so no one disturbs the eggs.

  14. keolebogile

    I own(picked up in the middle of the road) one how do i take care of it?

  15. Stephanie

    A gopher tortoise has appeared in our front yard two days ago and is quickly burrowing under the azalea bushes, already exposing sprinkler pipes. I’ve tried contacting Fl Wildlife Conservation with no response. Help!

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