Gopher Tortoises Revealed

When I first moved to Florida, I was facisnated by gopher tortoises. In fact, this reptile takes the lead to one of my very favorite wildlife creatures to study and observe. They look so prehistoric as they roam and graze on grass. When they are not in their burrows, gopher tortoises spend their time eating. They are stricly herbicores, eating more than 300 different species of plants. They also fancy mushrooms and fruits such as the saw palmetto (Serona repens) berry. Most of the water they need comes from their food, but they do drink standing water in times of extreme drought. Gopher tortoises have also been known to eat excrement as well, which supplies them with much needed nutrients.

As you can see, this guy has sand on his shell from coming in and out of his burrow.


Gopher tortoises make their homes by using a technique called burrowing. For the most part, they spend most of their days inside their burrow which can be up to almost 10 ft. deep! Their burrows are great protectors from the summer heat, fires, and enemies. Gopher tortoises are pretty friendly, and open up their burrows to over 400 different mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects.  A single gopher tortoise needs about four acres of land to live, as they dig several burrows and need a large area for grazing. Mating season happens between April and November involving courtship rituals in which the male does head bobbing, shell nipping, and rubbing of pheromones from scent glands on his legs. They do not become reproductively mature until they are 10-25 years old. They also have a long life of living up to 60 years old. They must be one of the wisest repitles around!

A gopher tortoise dug a burrow right along the side of my house. They cause no concern for ruining foundation. 
A gopher tortoise making its way inside its burrow. 

Gopher tortoises enjoy living in  oak-sandhills, scrub, pine flatwoods, saw palmettos and coastal dunes of the southeastern United States. Human activities have unfortunatly elimated most of the gopher tortoises and they are are now on the threatened specisis list. These tortoises suffer great threats such as cars, disease, natural preditors and habitat loss. It’s a sad sight to see this reptile dead along side the road, ecpecially knowing it’s volnerable and on a fast path to becoming extinct.

“Tortoises are hit when attempting to cross roads, when caught within the curbs and barriers at the median and road edges, and even when caught within the rails of train tracks.”- Defenders of Wildlife

Luckily, there are measures you can take to keep these amazing, long-living reptiles alive and in the wild. These measures don’t just go for protecting gopher tortoises. They can be used for protecting all of our wildlife, all while keeping a respective environment for ourselves and our future generations.

  1. Pick up any trash you see, big or small. Gopher tortoises graze freely on grass and in fields for their food. They don’t understand that a small piece of plastic isn’t food. So if you see it, pick it up. It’s our duty to take care of the trash we created.
  2. Educate those around you. Since moving to Florida, I have met people that have no idea about anything when it comes to gopher tortoises. I remember meeting a guy on the disc golf course who said he was, and I quote, “afraid of them”. It made me laugh, but in all seriousness gopher tortoises should be afraid of us and the destruction we do on them. Without the proper education of the wildlife around you, how are you suppose to be helping them? Education is the key to saving all specicis of wildlife, even the ones that make us cringe when they slither by.
  3. Help the tortoise cross the road. Tortoises often have to cross roads, even major highways, to get from one burrow to the other. Never put yourself in harms way in front of vehicle traffic, but if you see a tortoise crossing the road you can help it along by simply pushing it from the back of their shell or stand by and be their gaurdian until it makes its way to the other side of the road to prevent a road mortality.
  4. Never harass a tortoise. “Current Florida state regulations clearly indicate that it is illegal to handle or disturb gopher tortoises or to bother their burrows.1)      If your goal is to remove the tortoise(s) away from areas where it may not be wanted, the FWC must issue a relocation permit to have it moved, often in conjunction with a licensed relocation service.2)      If your goal is to coexist with and be more accommodating to the tortoise(s) on your property, we are currently working on a management module to assist you.  For now, here are a few tips:  The burrow(s) must be protected from being collapsed, and care needs to be taken that people or vehicles do not fall into or collapse the burrow.  For tortoises in your yard, providing additional food usually is not necessary and is not recommended.  It is usually done because people like to watch the tortoise feeding.  It is best, however, to leave the tortoise to feed on its own.  Unnaturally providing attractive foods but not necessarily the ones the tortoise needs could give it a full belly that makes it lazy and keeps it from going out to forage properly, perhaps missing the nutrients required for optimal health.  Nonetheless if you would like to provide food, there are some simple rules, which should be followed.  Be sure to review the threats to tortoises, to better protect them.  Roadways, dogs, children, chemicals, and pesticides are among those potentially hazardous to the tortoise(s) in your yard if care is not taken.”

When you start to recognize and understand each and every creature that lives on this earth with you, you will start to respect them for all they do for us. They aren’t just roaming around being animals. They are so much more than that. Each and every creature serves a purpose, and the gopher tortoise is here to remind us to take life slow, eat more greens, never stay in one place for too long, and that there is always someone there fighting for you so you should always keep going, even when the road seems dangerous.



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