Land conservation efforts at our preserves are underway to protect this keystone species.
Gopher tortoises are an important species of many diminished habitats with well-drained sandy soils like longleaf pine forest, scrub, and dry prairie. They are found in all 67 counties in Florida including pastures and urban areas, and are an important species of the longleaf pine forest and wiregrass landscapes. The gopher tortoise originated in North America 60 million years ago, making it one of the oldest living species, and they may live up to 80 years.
A Keystone Species
These gentle reptiles dig deep burrows for shelter and forage on low-growing plants. Their large limbs are uniquely designed to excavate burrows up to 33 feet long in Florida’s sandy soils. They share their burrows with more than 350 other species including the Eastern indigo snake, rodents, gopher frog, Florida mouse, and hundreds of invertebrates like beetles and crickets who also depend on the burrows for shelter and predator protection. This makes gopher tortoises a keystone species—one without which many other species would not survive.
A single tortoise may dig more than one burrow a season, and multiple tortoises may occupy the same burrow. These underground tunnels provide ideal winter hibernation quarters, retreats from the summer heat and shelter from fire for both the tortoise and the other resident animals who share their quarters
Threats to Gopher Tortoise Habitat
The gopher tortoise traditionally thrived in habitats with well-drained sandy soils like xeric oak hammock, scrub, pine flatwoods, dry prairies, and coastal dune habitats, and the longleaf pine forest. This habitat which once stretched across the South, nearly unbroken, from Virginia to Florida to Texas. Today about 5 percent remains of the 90-million-acre original system, and there have been big losses in dry prairie and scrub habitats too. Gopher tortoises prefer well-drained soils in high and dry areas. Unfortunately, longleaf is the same environment that is highly desireable for development in Florida. This drastic reduction in habitat, along with ever-increasing development has made the gopher tortoise a threatened species in Florida.
TNC is actively restoring and protecting the longleaf pine, scrub, pine flatwoods, and other communities that the gopher tortoise needs to survive. The tortoises thrive in the low and open vegetation on sandy soils of open longleaf pine forests in the fire-adapted habitats that are maintained through the periodic application of prescribed fire.
Tiger Creek Preserve and its nearly 5,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness is home to a healthy gopher tortoise population, and our land conservation efforts on the preserve will help to ensure its survival for the future, and the many species who depend upon it. We diligently work to keep their habitat suitable with a strong prescribed fire program at Tiger Creek Preserve, Disney Wilderness Preserve, and Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, to name a few of our favorite places.
Celebrate Gopher Tortoise Day
April 10th was officially adopted by the Gopher Tortoise Council as Gopher Tortoise Day! Gopher tortoises are found in every Florida county and are frequently encountered in neighborhoods, along roadways, and in many of Florida’s public parks and forests. The goal of Gopher Tortoise Day is to increase awareness and appreciation for these long lived, gentle reptiles.
You can help celebrate Florida’s only native tortoise by hosting an event in your community, asking your local City or County Commission to officially adopt April 10 as Gopher Tortoise Day, and by educating others on the importance of protecting gopher tortoises. Or you can simply admire a gopher tortoise on their special day, from a distance, to let them show you how they maneuver in the world.