An adult gopher tortoise on the sandy soils of longleaf pine savanna.
An adult gopher tortoise on the sandy soils of longleaf pine savanna. © Karine Aigner

Stories in Mississippi

The Gopher Tortoise

At Camp Shelby and throughout the longleaf pine range, gopher tortoises are staging a comeback.

 

A Burrowing Homemaker

Gopher tortoises are a key species of the rapidly disappearing longleaf pine and wiregrass community. Gopher tortoises may live up to 80 years. They grow to 10 to 16 inches in length and weigh about 10 pounds, and have chocolate brown, gray or black shells, while their plastrons (underside breastplate) are mostly yellow or tan. Their elephantine hind limbs and their flattened, shovel-like forelimbs are uniquely designed to excavate burrows in the sandy soils up to 33 feet long.

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 to eastern Louisiana. The species is federally listed as threatened in Mississippi, Louisiana and portions of Alabama.  The can live up to 80 years.

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. 

Threats to their habitat

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 adapt to more hazardous habitats, such as roadsides. 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 the burrow’s inhabitants.

The Nature Conservancy is actively restoring and protecting the longleaf pine communities that the gopher tortoise needs to survive. Learn more about our The Nature Conservancy’s Longleaf Pine Initiative and other species that rely on this historic habitat, like the black pinesnake, dusky gopher frog, and eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake.

Hatchlings at the Camp Shelby gopher tortoise nursery.
Gopher Tortoise Hatchlings Hatchlings at the Camp Shelby gopher tortoise nursery. © Colin May/ The Nature Conservancy

Giving them a head start

The Nature Conservancy of Mississippi has a gopher tortoise nursery at Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center, where it incubates, raises, and releases hundreds of the endangered species. Gopher tortoises benefit from the nursery program because in the wild, only a quarter of all eggs will hatch, and only 10% of hatchlings survive their first year.

By giving them a head start, The Nature Conservancy gives them a much greater chance of surviving to sexual maturity and growing a healthy population. Gopher tortoises reach sexual maturity at 15-20 years, but can mature sooner if they are started in the nursery.

The tortoise nursery is kept at a near constant temperature of 78-80˚F. The hatchlings are allowed to feed and drink as much as they want in safety and receive 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness.

Tortoises are fed a diet of commercially available Natural Grassland Tortoise Food, mixed with fresh greens once daily. Additionally, tortoises are allowed to graze upon rye grass and native fall and spring grasses that have been planted in each enclosure.

The tortoise hatchlings are held in the head-start facility for two years then released. The two year old tortoises are expected to be as large as or larger than 6-7 year old wild tortoises. The larger size is expected to increase their chance of survival by 70-85%.

Gopher Tortoises Hatching Gopher tortoises hatching at the Conservancy's gopher tortoise headstart program at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.