|A typical gopher tortoise burrow at The Naples Preserve.|
In honor of Florida's Gopher Tortoise Day, I am re-posting an updated version of a post created 9 years ago.
Way back in 2011, I visited the Naples Preserve and sketched a gopher tortoise burrow as part of my nature journal entry about the coastal plain honeycomb head wildflower. It’s funny how a drawing can start trains of thought and exploration. Although I didn’t see any tortoises that day, the burrow opening itself led me to wonder about the gopher tortoise: what they eat and how they live. I've since seen several in various locations in Collier County, mainly in coastal and scrub locations (think SANDY soil!).
Gopher tortoises are a keystone species. A keystone is the wedge-shaped piece at the top of an arch that supports the other parts. If a keystone is removed, the arch collapses. A keystone species has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its quantity. These amazing creatures are very important to the survival of other species that share their habitat.
|Click on image to see a larger size.|
For example, it’s been estimated that gopher tortoise burrows (both active and abandoned) provide support for over 300 types of animals, birds, and insects – which use them for shelter, hiding places, or protection from the elements. These are commensal relationships, relationships in which one organism benefits while the other is neither harmed nor helped.
Gopher tortoise burrows average 15 ft. in length and may be as deep as 6 feet. The longest estimate is up to 48 ft. in length! The burrows have one entrance (that is also the exit), and eventually open up into a larger “bedroom.” Species using these burrows range from burrowing owls and scrub jays, to Florida mice, gopher frogs, opossums, scorpions, and indigo snakes.
Gopher tortoises are found all over Florida, but only in certain types of habitats. They range into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and the southernmost tip of South Carolina. Although once common, numbers have dwindled because of habitat destruction In Florida. On the state's Endangered and Threatened Species List they are listed as Threatened.
Some other interesting things I learned about gopher tortoises:
• They first appeared during the Pleistocene Epoch, and are one of our oldest living species.
• Gopher tortoises are land reptiles – they do not live in or near the water! In fact, they rarely drink water, getting fluids from the plants they eat. If you find one, please do NOT place them in water, and help educate others to their needs! Well-meaning people often try to "help" these tortoises by placing them in a nearby lake or canal. They are better off left alone!
• They live in areas with easy to dig sand, such as pine flatwoods and scrub habitats.
• The size of the burrow opening corresponds to the size of the tortoise using it.
• They are herbivore scavengers, eating grasses, legumes, mushrooms, fruits, berries, and even flowers.
• Biologists believe that they have a 40 to 60 year life span in the wild; they live much longer in captivity.
Some websites on gopher tortoises for further exploration:
All about Florida Gopher Tortoise Day with educational resources, including a coloring book to download (scroll down).
Ginny Stibolt's account of finding a gopher tortoise in her Florida backyard, with in-depth facts.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission page
Free coloring page! you can click HERE to download a free gopher tortoise coloring page in PDF format (right).