Did You Know?
Gopher Tortoises are moderate sized (9-11 inches) terrestrial tortoises, with stumpy, elephantine hind feet and flattened, shovel-like forelimbs adapted for digging. Gopher Tortoises are named for their ability to dig large deep burrows.
Gopher tortoises live in upland habitats throughout Florida. They dig deep burrows for shelter and forage on low-growing plants and can be found in forests, pastures and yards. These burrows are widely used by other species in the ecosystem, making gopher tortoises a keystone species, providing a pivotal role in the community to other native animals.
Gopher Tortoises range from southeastern South Carolina to extreme southeastern Louisiana. Florida represents the largest portion of the total global range of the species.
Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law. Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from the FWC before capturing and relocating tortoises.
Don't Touch the Tortoise!
Many gopher tortoise deaths are caused by vehicles. Tortoises like to burrow and forage for food near roads because roadsides are open and sunny. Always watch the road when driving, and scan the road and shoulder ahead. Gopher tortoises are slow moving, so allow them time to cross the road.
If you find a gopher tortoise, leave it alone. If you see a tortoise attempting to cross the road you can help the tortoise by placing it out of harm’s way in the same direction it was going, but DO NOT take it with you or move it to a different area. Please do NOT put your life in danger to move the tortoise.
If you see an injured or dead gopher tortoise
Call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s toll-free Wildlife Alert hotline at 1-888-404-3922, or use #FWC or *FWC on your cell phone. You also can text Tip@MyFWC.com. If you cannot remain at the site, give a detailed location. Your information could help save the tortoise.
Because gopher tortoises share their burrows with more than 350 other species they are referred to as a keystone species. The presence of gopher tortoises indicates whether a habitat is suitable not only for tortoises but other species, as well. Some of the species known to share their burrows include the Florida mouse, burrowing owl, gopher frog, and eastern indigo snake. As the primary burrow-builder in its ecosystem, the gopher tortoise is very important to maintaining the structure, composition and populations within an ecological community. Similar to the role of a keystone in an arch, an ecosystem may experience a dramatic shift if a keystone species is removed. Conversely, an increase in the number of tortoises is evidence of sufficient food and shelter for reproduction, and when the tortoises are thriving, so are many other species.
Gopher Tortoise Surveys at ONP
Our volunteers and staff conduct periodic surveys on the Preserve to find out what our gopher tortoise populations are, a true measure of the success of our habitat restoration efforts here. Our first survey of the upland habitats in 2010 found 100 burrows in only a few areas. Surveys count active, inactive and abandoned burrows, and gopher tortoises can use multiple burrows, so this burrow count equates to approximately 43 tortoises.
In 2013, we counted a total of 124 burrows, representing approximately 54 tortoises. However, of those counted only 19 were found on the 11 acres of upland habitat known as the Red Trail. Restoration of the Red Trail area began in 2013, and included removal of sand pines, a controlled burn, and control of exotic grasses. Our most recent survey in 2015 found 178 burrows or roughly 80 tortoises, 50 of those were found on the Red Trail, a sure sign that the tortoise population is growing. Increasing numbers of mammals, insects, birds and amphibians associated with gopher tortoise burrows have also been noted, including grasshoppers, coach whip snakes, rabbits, and armadillos.
In a nutshell.. our restoration efforts here are working! Our keystone species is increasing, other creatures are finding suitable habitats, and Oakland Nature Preserve is achieving its mission. Thank you to the staff and volunteers who helped with our survey! We could not have done it without you!
You can Help!
Gopher Tortoises are herbivores, enjoying a wide range of grasses, fruits and leaves of herbaceous plants and shrubs like asters, legumes, cat briar, gopher apple, palmetto berries and prickly pear cactus. Because they get water from plants and dew, gopher tortoises rarely drink water.
The conservation of gopher tortoises and their habitat depends not only on organizations like ours but on local citizens like yourself! There are so many ways to co-exist with these gentle land tortoises. Gopher tortoises are commonly seen in suburban areas around Florida. If a gopher tortoise is living in your yard, here are some things you can do to help this threatened species:
- Be sure to leave tortoises alone and keep dogs and children away from the tortoise and its burrow.
- If possible, avoid mowing, digging, driving over or otherwise disturbing the area right around the burrow.
- Trimming of grass or weeds around the burrow can be done using a weed trimmer.
- Never block the burrow opening which could prevent its exit or entrance.
Grow plants native to Florida in your yard, since nonnative plants can be harmful to Florida’s biodiversity. Many native plants will blend in beautifully with your landscaping and also attract native species of birds and butterflies. Gopher tortoises graze naturally on a wide variety of plants, including broadleaf grasses, wiregrass, prickly pear cactus, wild grape, blackberry, blueberry, beautyberry and many more. They generally feed within 160 feet of their burrows but have been known to travel more than twice that distance to meet their foraging and nutritional needs.
If you have seen tortoises on your property and would like to provide forage plants, below are a list of native plants we recommend:
- Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora)
- Twinflower (Dychoriste oblongifolia)
- Silk Grass (Pityopsis graminifolia)
- Wild Petunia (Ruellia caroliniana)
- Golden Aster (Chrysopsis mariana)
- Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)
- Goldenrod (Solidago sp)
- St. Joh's Wort (Hypericum reductum)
- Skullcap (Scutellaria sp) (its blooming right now in the Preserve)
- Lopsided Indiangrass (Sorghastrum secundum)
- False Rosemary (Conradina grandiflora)
- Gopher Apple (Licania michauxii)
- Greeneyes (Berlanderia subacaulis)
- Elephant's Foot (Elephantopus carolinainus)
- Blazing Star (Liatris sp)
- Buckwheat (Eriogonum sp)
Adopt A Gopher Tortoise
Through symbolic adoptions, you can help our efforts to protect Gopher Tortoises and restore and conserve their habitat.
Every penny of your contribution will directly fund restoration work that improves the amount and quality of Gopher Tortoise habitat here at Oakland Nature Preserve, Central Florida.
Gopher Tortoise adoptions are the perfect gift for the holidays, birthdays or any special occasion, for a friend, loved one or yourself!
If you have questions about gopher tortoises, contact our Wildlife Coordinator.