Berlandier’s tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri)

Also known as: Texas tortoise
Synonyms: Gopherus polyphemus berlandieri, Scaptochelys berlandieri, Testudo berlandieri, Xerobates berlandieri
French: Gophère Du Texas, Tortue Du Texas
Spanish: Tortuga De Texas
GenusGopherus (1)
SizeCarapace length: up to 24 cm (2)

Berlandier's tortoise is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

A North American species, Berlandier's tortoise has a somewhat oblong, rather flat-topped carapace (upper shell) with a rough, ridged appearance. The carapace is largely brown, with yellowish-orange centres to some of the scutes (2) (4), while the plastron (lower shell) is yellow. The wedge-shaped head has a pointed snout and a slightly hooked upper jaw (2). The sturdy hind legs are columnar and somewhat resemble those of an elephant (4). The head, limbs and tail are all yellowish-brown (2). Male Berlandier’s tortoises can be distinguished by their slightly longer and narrower carapace and their concave plastron (2).

Berlandier's tortoise occurs in southern Texas, U.S.A. and north-east Mexico (5).

Berlandier’s tortoise inhabits semi-desert areas in Mexico, from sea level up to elevations of 884 metres, and scrub forests in humid and subtropical areas of southern Texas up to 100 or 200 metres (2) (6). It shows a preference for well-drained, sandy soils and open scrub woods (2).

The omnivorous Berlandier’s tortoise feeds primarily on grasses and herbs (2), but when these are in short supply the red fruits, flowers and stems of Opuntia cacti (prickly pears) are often eaten (2) (5). Insects, snails, faecal matter and animal bones may also be consumed (2).

Unlike other species of Gopherus, such as the burrowing gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), Berlandier’s tortoise does not dig an extensive burrow. Instead, it uses its forelimbs and the sides of its shell to push away debris and soil to create a shallow resting place called a pallet (2). This pallet is generally located under a bush or cactus, and as the tortoise returns to use the pallet again and again, the pallet gradually deepens, reaching depths of 1.5 metres. Sometimes, Berlandier’s tortoise uses a suitably-sized mammal burrow and may excavate it further (2).

In Texas, the courtship and mating season of Berlandier’s tortoise extends from June until September. During courtship, the male follows the female, bobbing his head in her direction. Eventually catching up with the female, the male attempts to stop her by biting her head, forefeet and the back of her shell and by ramming her with his gular projection, a sturdy extension on the front of the lower shell, just below the chin (2). The female will often pivot around to avoid this, but eventually stops and withdraws her head, as the male continues to push her around. Finally, he will mount her from behind, with his forefeet resting on her shell, and mating takes place (2).

Nesting takes place between April and July, with the female laying a small clutch of eggs (usually two or three eggs) in a depression in the ground. One or two clutches are laid each year and the eggs hatch after 88 to 118 days of incubation (2). Berlandier’s tortoise is slow to mature and it is thought that females may not breed successfully until they are over a decade old (2) (5).

In some parts of its range, Berlandier’s tortoise numbers are falling as a result of intensive agriculture (2). While light grazing by cattle can be beneficial, as it encourages growth of prickly pears, large-scale intensive agriculture destroys the natural habitat of this reptile (6). Such impacts have been particularly felt in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where over 90 percent of semi-desert habitat has been destroyed by farming operations (2) (6), and 80 percent of the remaining suitable habitat is unprotected and threatened by development. In the past, many Berlandier’s tortoises were collected for the pet trade (2). While this is now illegal in Texas, a trade in this species continues and a lesser number are exploited for food (7). In addition, many Berlandier’s tortoises are killed each year on roads (2).

Fortunately for Berlandier’s tortoise, in areas where cattle grazing predominates, suitable, healthy habitat remains (6), and this tortoise has been protected by law in Texas since 1967 (2), where it is listed as Threatened (4). Its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) means that any international trade requires a permit and trade levels are monitored (3).

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
  2. Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd, Netherlands.
  3. CITES (June, 2007)
  4. Texas Parks and Wildlife (May, 2008)
  5. Alderton, D. (1998) Turtles and Tortoises of the World. Blandford Press, London.
  6. Fergus, C. (2007) Turtles. Stackpole Books, US.
  7. Groombridge, B. (1982) The IUCN Amphibia-Reptilia Red Data Book. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.