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Protecting and Conserving Gopher Tortoises

Video and photo credit: Janet Molchan

Monday, April 10 is Gopher Tortoise Day in Florida. State and local wildlife conservation programs note this day with awareness activities relating to the Threatened species’ and its habitat.

Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is considered a keystone species because its burrows provide shelter for more than 350 other species living in their habitat. Yet, the vulnerable, long-living, gentle reptile that share its home with others, is listed as “Threatened” in the State of Florida.

baby gopher tortoises

Gopher Tortoises are Terrestrial

These land-only reptiles often don’t look like much more than a giant rock on the road or in the wilderness. A closer observation of them reveals their perfectly formed sand and dirt-digging feet, their unique shell patterns, short neck, and perpetually determined expression.  If you are lucky enough to see one closely as it treads across grassy land, you may observe how it pulls its head inside the shell as it pushes through thick flora.

Hatchlings instinctively know how to dig burrows from a very young age. They eat mostly grass and fruit found in its home range.

Conservation Efforts

A visit with Zoo Miami’s Gopher Tortoise Conservation program leader, Dr. Steven Whitfield, yielded more information about habitat, threats, and state and local efforts to protect the species. The zoo’s conservation team records the movement of the wild-living tortoise population in the endangered and protected pine rocklands ecosystem on its expansive property.  “We’re the first study to examine gopher tortoises in the critically endangered pine rocklands habitat,” Whitfield states.

The research being conducted surveys burrows to identify vital information on gopher tortoise habitats. In doing so, the team is also observing individual tortoise characteristics, foraging activities, population size, reproduction cycles, and the team is working to understand the threat of Urinary Respiratory Tract Disease, and much more.

adult gopher tortoise

Florida also has programs in place for the protection and conservation of the tortoises, as do many counties and cities within the state. An app is available from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) (pdf) to report a gopher tortoise sighting, or gather information about how to live with them. Landowners can obtain a permit to remove and relocate tortoises on their property.

Threats to Gopher Tortoise Populations

Specifically talking about threats to the tortoises, Dr. Whitfield mentions that habitat modification is one of the major issues facing them. “Development in Florida has been a major problem for gopher tortoises historically. Now, you can’t build in an area occupied by tortoises without doing a tortoise survey and removing them from the burrow.”

Other threats facing them are:

  • vehicle strikes
  • habitat fragmentation and destruction
  • fire suppression
  • predation
gopher tortoise burrow
Gopher tortoise burrow

What You Can Do for Gopher Tortoises

  • If you see a gopher tortoise, leave it alone!
  • Don’t put it in water.  It can’t swim, being a terrestrial species.
  • Learn the difference between a turtle and a tortoise.
  • If walking through parks, wildlife refuges,  or other nature areas, leave pets at home or keep them leashed if out with you. Dogs can harass tortoises and wreak havoc on borrows.

The threatened gopher tortoise is a valuable member of the ecosystem. Burrows provide shelter for other species, which might otherwise become extinct.  Dr. Whitfield notes, “They also play a large role as seed-dispersers — transporting seeds of native plants around the ecosystem and helping with germination.”  Their value to an ecosystem is vital and needed.

Take time when walking around in natural areas to see if you can find one. If you do, download the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s app to report its location.

Everyone can aid in the conservation of our terrestrial neighbors.

Writer’s Note: Despite our best efforts, we were unable to find a single tortoise basking in the sun in the pine rocklands ecosystem. The tortoises in the video and photos were courtesy of the children’s zoo and their caretakers.

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