The gopher tortoise belongs to a group of terrestrial tortoises that originated in North America 60 million years ago.
Ecological Significance, History and Range
Watch a VIDEO about the gopher tortoise (in the video tab). The gopher tortoise belongs to a group of terrestrial tortoises that originated in North America 60 million years ago, making it one of the oldest living species.
These medium-sized turtles are found in the Coastal Plain from southern South Carolina south and westward to eastern Louisiana. The species is federally listed as threatened in Mississippi, Louisiana and portions of Alabama.
Gopher tortoises are a key species of the rapidly disappearing longleaf pine and wiregrass community. Their elephantine hind limbs and their flattened, shovel-like forelimbs are uniquely designed to excavate burrows in the sandy soils up to – and sometimes greater than – 33 feet long.
It’s not uncommon for a single tortoise to dig more than one burrow a season or for multiple tortoises to occupy the same burrow. These underground tunnels are essential to the survival of the gopher tortoise, providing ideal winter hibernation quarters, retreats from the summer heat and shelter from fire.
Hundreds of other species, including snakes and frogs, also depend on the burrows for shelter and predator protection.
Development, urban sprawl and fire suppression have contributed to the decline of the longleaf pine forest, which once covered some 90 million acres in the South, from Virginia to Texas.
Today, less than 5 percent of old-growth longleaf forest remains, causing gopher tortoise populations to decline and in some cases adapt to other more hazardous habitats, such as roadsides. Scientists estimate that less than 6 percent of eggs produce hatchlings that survive a year or more.
In the past, tortoises have been vulnerable to collection by people as pets or for food, practices now illegal. Also, rattlesnake hunters sometimes pour gasoline into burrows, forcing snakes to the surface. This technique is typically fatal to all burrow inhabitants.
• grow on average 10 to 16 inches in length and weighs about 10 pounds;
• may live up to 80 years, with the females reaching sexual maturity at 15-20 years of age;
• are herbivores, eating mainly grasses, berries, other fruit;
• have chocolate brown, gray or black in color carapaces (shells), while their plastrons (underside breastplate) are mostly yellow or tan;
• typically mate from March to October. The female lays between three and 15 eggs in a sandy mound somewhere near her burrow, and the eggs incubate and hatch in about 70 to 100 days.
• Watch a short video to learn more about gopher tortoises ((in the video tab).