The gopher tortoise is one of five North American tortoise species and is the only tortoise naturally found east of the Mississippi River. Its range includes the southeastern Coastal Plain from southeastern Louisiana east to southern South Carolina, and south to Florida. Gopher tortoises occur in parts of all 67 Florida counties.
The gopher tortoise is unique in that it is Federally listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act only in the portion of its range occurring west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers in Alabama (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1987). In the eastern portion of its range, the gopher tortoise is a Candidate species for federal protection (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2011). The gopher tortoise has some form of state-level protection in each state which it occurs and is a State-designated Threatened species in Florida.
The gopher tortoise is a moderate-sized, terrestrial turtle, averaging 9–11 inches in length when fully grown, though it can reach lengths of up to 15 inches (Ernst et al. 1994). The species is identifiable by its stumpy, elephantine hind feet and flattened, shovel-like forelimbs covered in thick scales. Hatchling (<1-year-old) and juvenile tortoises tend to be yellow-orange and brown in color, but the bright coloration fades with age. The shell of an adult gopher tortoise is generally tan, brown, or gray in coloration. Adult male and female tortoises can be differentiated by the presence or absence of a concavity on their lower shell; mature males will exhibit this concavity, whereas females will have a flat lower shell.
Gopher tortoises can live 40 to 60 years in the wild, though captive tortoises may live 90+ years. Males reach adulthood at approximately 9-12 years of age, whereas a female may take 10-21 years to reach maturity depending on local resource abundance and latitude (Ernst et al. 1994). The breeding season occurs between March and October. Females typically lay one clutch of 5-9 ping pong ball-sized eggs per year. Eggs are deposited between May and July. Gopher tortoises nest in open, sunny locations, frequently within the soft mound of sand at the entrance of their burrow, called the burrow apron. Egg incubation lasts 80 to 110 days, and hatchlings typically emerge from their nests between August and November. Tortoises exhibit no maternal care of their eggs or young.
The life of a gopher tortoise revolves around its burrow(s) where gopher tortoises spend up to 80% of their time. Burrows average 15 feet long and 6.5 feet deep, though they have been documented reaching up to 40 feet long and 10 feet deep.
Gopher tortoises are herbivorous; they feed on low-growing plants like wiregrass, broadleaf grasses, gopher apple, and legumes. Tortoises are opportunistic grazers, so the dominant plants within their environment likely make up the bulk of their diet. They typically forage within 160 ft of their burrow but will travel farther if forage is unavailable. Gopher tortoises may drink water that has pooled following a rainstorm, but generally consume an adequate amount of water from forage plants.
The Florida Gopher Tortoise is listed threatened and is PROTECTED UNDER STATE LAW! This also goes for their burrows.
***You MAY NOT touch a Gopher Tortoise or its Burrow unless specifically permitted to do so by the director of the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission.
***Gopher Tortoises CAN NOT SWIM and will drown easily.