gopher tortoise, © Nicole Freidenfelds

The Gopher Tortoise: Celebrating a Keystone Species

Contributing author: Elizabeth Armentrout

May 23rd, 2015 marks the 15th annual World Turtle Day. Each year, organizations and classrooms around the world celebrate this day in a variety of ways, from turtle education to rescue efforts to research activities and more! World Turtle Day (started in 2000 by American Tortoise Rescue) is an effort to help people celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises and their disappearing habitats around the world.

Many people ask, just what is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? As the words are commonly used, turtles use aquatic habitats, such as the sea turtles, pond and river turtles. Terrapins live in fresh or brackish (low salt content) water, like estuaries. Tortoises are a type of turtle that live on dry land ranging from forests to deserts and dunes. All turtles have shells; most are hard but some are soft shelled. The bone is covered by keratin like a person’s fingernails. Some turtles can entirely close their shell, like the well-named box turtle. For others, like the leatherback sea turtle and softshell turtles, the head and legs are always exposed. Each species faces a slightly different (and often serious) set of threats. They deserve our attention and our help, not just on World Turtle Day, but year-round.

gopher tortoise, © Cindy McIntyreHere in Florida, we are celebrating our own special species of tortoise on World Turtle Day! The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is the only tortoise in the eastern United States, and in 2008, it was designated as the official state tortoise of Florida. Gopher tortoises live in the dry, sandy uplands of the southeastern United States. They may be found in oak-sandhills, pine flatwoods, scrub, and coastal dunes. These animals are a keystone species, and play a vital role in their natural habitats. They dig large, deep burrows (up to 40 feet long and a dozen feet deep!) in which they spend most of their time when not out foraging for the large variety of plants they feast on. The burrows have a very stable temperature and relative humidity that tortoises use to escape extreme temperatures, natural and prescribed fires, and predators. And even better – tortoises don’t mind sharing. Nearly 400 other species also use these burrows, including the Florida mouse, burrowing owl, gopher frog, and eastern indigo snake. As the leading burrow-builder in the ecosystem, the gopher tortoise is a very important species in its native community.

Unfortunately, due to human interference, gopher tortoises no longer inhabit a large area of their historic range. They can still be found in some areas of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida which hosts the largest remaining population of gopher tortoises in the world.

Though protected to various degrees by states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, gopher tortoises are increasingly threatened by habitat loss, road kill, predation and climate change and continue to be illegally harvested by people. We’re working to reverse this habitat loss and population decline. First, we’re trying to increase funding for Florida’s land acquisition and easement program. We serve on the state’s Gopher Tortoise Technical Assistance Group, where we contribute to the state’s Gopher Tortoise Management Plan and the guidelines for development in tortoise habitat. We also worked with agencies and private land managers like foresters and farmers, on Wildlife Best Management Practices manuals that describe how operations on forests and agricultural lands can protect gopher tortoises, their nests and burrows.

Gopher tortoise, © NASA

To protect tortoises from construction of developments and roadways, they’re often moved to new sites. While relocation does save some tortoises, it leaves the rest of the natural community behind to be destroyed. Instead of just moving the tortoises, we want to protect the species in their home habitat. That’s why we advocate for responsible development and protection of additional public lands, and we work with landowners to establish conservation easements that protect the animals even on private land.

There are also things that you can do to help gopher tortoises, whether you live in Florida or are just visiting. For one thing, please always watch out for wildlife when driving in Florida. Tortoises, like many forms of wildlife, can be killed when crossing the road. And since they move more slowly, they’re especially vulnerable. If you spot a tortoise in the road and want to help, please do so carefully – don’t put your own life in danger! If it’s safe, you can help the tortoise cross the road by placing it out of harm’s way in the same direction that it was going. But do not take it with you or move it to a different area – not only can that be bad for the tortoise, but it’s also against the law.

You can also download the Florida Gopher Tortoise app to your smartphone and become a citizen scientist! This app allows anyone in gopher tortoise range to record the location where they spot gopher tortoises and report that information back to the state wildlife agency. This is important data that can help experts better understand where tortoises roam and where protection is needed.