Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

French: Gophère Polyphème, Tortue De La Floride, Tortue Gaufrée
Spanish: Tortuga Terrestre De Florida
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderTestudines
FamilyTestudinidae
GenusGopherus (1)
SizeLength: 10 – 24 cm (2)
Length of hatchlings: 3 – 5 cm (5)

The gopher tortoise is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The gopher tortoise has a light to dark brown, elongate upper shell and dull yellow plastron. The skin is greyish brown and the head is large and blunt. The hind feet are small, stumpy and without webs (2). The front legs are shovel-like for burrowing in sand (4).

This species is found in the south-eastern part of the United States, from south-western South Carolina down to the Florida peninsula and west to Louisiana (2).

The gopher tortoise prefers dry landscapes such as sandy ridges and sand dunes, as well as the forests of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) (2) (4).

The breeding season begins in the spring, when males give short rasping calls to attract females. Males and females may fight each other, apparently as part of the courtship process. Eggs are laid mainly from mid May to mid June in an open, sunny place (4). Between one and 25 white, spherical eggs are laid in batches of five to six in holes dug into the ground, and the tiny hatchlings must dig their way to the surface when they emerge 100 days later (2). Sex is determined by temperature in turtles, so those eggs that are incubated at over 30 ºC will be females, and those below 30 ºC will be males (5). After emerging the hatchlings are protected by their parents in long, deep burrows (2), but may still be eaten by raccoons, skunks, armadillos, foxes and opossums (4). Sexual maturity is only reached at 16 – 21 years, and gopher tortoises may live for over 40 years (2).

After sleeping at night in a burrow, the diurnal gopher tortoise will emerge to feed during the day (2). It is herbivorous, eating grasses and low herbs, as well as occasional fruits and berries (2). A natural fire regime is important in the gopher tortoise’s habitat as rapidly moving wildfire will clear scrub, open the canopy, and encourage the growth of the vegetation eaten by the tortoises, who remain safe in their burrows during these fires (5). Each tortoise has a well defined home range which contains several burrows (4). Gopher tortoises are considered to be a ‘keystone’ species as their burrows, both active and abandoned, are used by over 100 other vertebrates and invertebrates, such as burrowing owls, raccoons and snakes (2) (4).

The gopher tortoise’s habitat is created by a fine balance of natural processes such as wildfire, which due to habitat loss and fragmentation can no longer occur. Controlled burning is practised, but this is less effective than wildfire (5). Gopher tortoises have suffered from poaching for meat in the past, but now more commonly for pets. Whilst not harmed, pet gopher tortoises are not able to reproduce and this can therefore lead to serious population declines (5). At the current time, mortality on roads is thought to be the most common cause of human-induced death in gopher tortoises (5).

Protection by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has made it illegal to keep gopher tortoises as pets, race them, or remove them from their natural range (5). Conservation of their natural habitat is of the highest priority, and relocation has been used to protect individuals during development of land (2). However, further habitat destruction and fragmentation will not only harm the gopher tortoise, but also the many species that depend on its burrowing habits.

For further information on this species see:

For more information about wildfires, see:

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:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Animal Diversity Web (November, 2004)
    http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Gopherus_polyphemus.html
  3. World Chelonian Trust (November, 2004)
    http://www.chelonia.org/Articles/Gpolyphemuscare.htm
  4. CITES (November, 2004)
    http://www.cites.org
  5. Georgia Wildlife Web (November, 2004)
    http://dromus.nhm.uga.edu/~GMNH/gawildlife/index.php?page=speciespages/species_page&key=gpolyphemus