The only terrestrial tortoise east of the Mississippi River, the gopher tortoise inhabits sandhill oak forests, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, and beach scrub forests from South Carolina to Florida and west to Louisiana.
Its dark brown to grayish black shell is often worn smooth from entering and exiting burrows, which the tortoise digs with heavily clawed front legs. Its hind legs are stumpy and elephantine. As long as 46 feet, the burrows protect the inhabitant from fluctuations in humidity and temperature.
Many other species use gopher tortoise burrows, including the eastern indigo snake, Florida mouse, gopher frog and a number of insects.
Emerging to bask in the sun and feed on grass and leaves, gopher tortoises often leave grazing paths around their burrow's entrance. They mate in the spring, between April and July, and lay 2 to 7 eggs in a shallow pit. Unfortunately, nest predation by armadillos, raccoons, skunks, and foxes is a serious problem.
It is estimated that less than 6 percent of eggs laid grow to tortoises that survive one year. Those that survive to hatch begin excavating their own burrows almost immediately. Their shells harden around 5 to 7 years of age, and they reach sexual maturity around 20 years.
Experiencing an 80 percent decline in the last 100 years, the gopher tortoise has been nearly extirpated in parts of its range. The largest and healthiest remaining populations are in Georgia and Florida. The main threat to the species is habitat loss and degradation as natural areas are converted to agricultural and residential uses.
February 20, 2011