The Gopher Tortoise
Gopher tortoises are staging a comeback in the longleaf pine forest.
The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) belongs to a group of terrestrial tortoises that originated in North America 60 million years ago, making it one of the oldest living species. As the only native North American tortoise species east of the Mississippi River—stretching across the coastal plain from southern South Carolina to eastern Louisiana—they represent a keystone species for the region’s rapidly disappearing longleaf pine forests that once covered an estimated 90 million acres of the southeastern United States.
- Live up to 80 years
- Grow to 10”-16”
- Weigh around 10 pounds
- Brown, gray or black shells
Gopher tortoises boast elephantine hind limbs and flattened, shovel-like forelimbs that are uniquely designed to excavate sandy soils to create burrows reaching up to 33 feet long. It’s not uncommon for a single tortoise to dig more than one burrow, or for multiple tortoises to occupy the same burrow.
These underground tunnels are essential to survival, providing winter hibernation quarters, retreats from summer heat and shelter from periodic fire disturbances required by this ecosystem. Hundreds of other species, including snakes and frogs, also depend on the burrows for shelter and protection from predators.
Healthy Habitat Required
Since gopher tortoise populations have drastically declined, the species has been designated as federally threatened in the western portion of its range and is protected under a candidate conservation agreement in the eastern portion of its range. The primary threat to the gopher tortoise, and other species that depend on the health of the longleaf pine ecosystem, is the loss of habitat. The longleaf pine forest that once covered approximately 90 million acres of the southeastern U.S. has been drastically reduced and fragmented as a result of development, urban sprawl and suppression of periodic fire required for the forest to thrive.
Today, less than 5% of old-growth longleaf forest remains, causing gopher tortoise populations to decline and adapt to more hazardous habitats, such as roadsides. They have also been vulnerable to illegal collection by people as pets or for food, and to inhumane practices by hunters who destroy burrows in search of rattlesnakes.
A TNC staffer holds a wild caught (smaller) four-year-old tortoise and another four-year-old tortoise raised in the nursey at Camp Shelby.
Doing Our Part
The Nature Conservancy is actively restoring and protecting the longleaf pine communities in Mississippi that the gopher tortoise needs to survive. We also lead a program at the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center (CSJFTC), where we incubate, raise and release hundreds of gopher tortoises each year.
Located within the De Soto National Forest, TNC's nursery at CSJFTC harbors the largest known population of tortoises in the western portion of the animal’s range. This population has been the focus of much interest in terms of habitat and species management, recovery and research because few tortoises in this area live long enough to reach adulthood. Only a quarter of all eggs hatch in the wild, and only 10% of hatchlings survive their first year. As older tortoises die, there are not enough younger ones to replace them, which results in a declining population.
Hatchlings raised at Camp Shelby are released after two years, when they reach the same size as 6-7 year old tortoises living in the wild. The larger size increases their chance of survival by up to 85%, providing them with a greater chance of surviving to sexual maturity and growing a healthy population.