Gopherus polyphemus(Florida) Gopher Tortoise

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Geographic Range

The gopher tortoise is found in the southeastern part of the United States. Its range includes southwestern South Carolina, south almost to the tip of the Florida peninsula; west through southern Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, to Louisiana and the edge of southeastern Texas and Arkansas

Habitat

The habitat of the gopher tortoise is in sandy ridge and sand dune areas where the water table never comes near the surface. The forests of longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, are also prime areas for gopher tortoise habitation.

Physical Description

The upper shell is brown or tan, with growth rings evident on younger individuals, but these are worn away on adults. The under shell is unhinged, dull yellowish in color, with the soft parts being grayish brown. The upper shell can range in length from 107 mm to 240 mm. The feet of this tortoise are stumpy and without webs, and their heads are large and blunt. Compared to the other species in the genus Gopherus, the gopher tortoise's head is broad, hind feet small, and shell elongate.

  • Average mass
    5500 g
    193.83 oz
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  • Range length
    170 to 240 mm
    6.69 to 9.45 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.579 W
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Reproduction

The mating behavior of the gopher tortoise is not well documented because of its secretive nature. Male gopher tortoises have been known to utter short rasping calls, to attract females. Fights between male and female gopher tortoises are also sometime seen, which could be related to courtship and mating. Males have a pair of glands under their chin that may function to attract females. The eggs of the gopher tortoise are laid in late April to July. They are deposited, five or six eggs at a time, in holes dug in the ground so that they are protected from the blazing sun. Once in the nest cavity the eggs incubate for approximately 100 days.

  • Breeding interval
    Gopher tortoises breed once per year.
  • Breeding season
    April through July
  • Average number of offspring
    8
    AnAge
  • Average gestation period
    90 days
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  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    3650 days
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  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    3650 days
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Lifespan/Longevity

Adult gopher tortoises require 16-21 years to mature, and can live 40 years or longer.

Behavior

The gopher tortoise can be found every month of the year with peak activity being May or June. The excavation of burrows is its main activity. The burrows, which are dug with their forelegs, can be up to 3 meters deep and 12 meters long. These burrows give them a place to sleep and hibernate, where they are protected from enemies (snakes and carnivorous mammals) and harsh weather condition. They spend their nights in the burrows and emerge daily in warm weather, usually in the morning before the heat is too great, to forage for food.

Food Habits

Overall, the gopher tortoise is an herbivore that enjoys low vegetation. The gopher tortoise spends most of its foraging time grazing in areas with a good supply of grasses and low herbs. Its food primarily consists of grasses and leaves with the occasional wild fruits and berries. In captivity gopher tortoises have been known to be fond of watermelon and cantaloupe rinds.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Ancient Indians had a monetary system that used gopher tortoises in the place of money. Shells of the tortoises have served as baskets, pots and even sun helmets. Even today, they are a source of food for poorer rural people of Florida and south Georgia.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are few negative aspects of the gopher tortoise. The occasional damage of crops by hungry tortoises and the relocation costs of developers needing to relocate tortoises from areas being built are the only negative aspects.

Conservation Status

The gopher tortoise has a vital community role and is known as a keystone species because of the wide use of their burrows by other animals (such as burrowing owls, raccoons, opossums, gopher frogs, snakes, etc.). Because they are a keystone species, the protection of the gopher tortoise is crucial for the whole ecosystem in which it lives. In some states the gopher tortoise is being protected by state agencies that are enforcing conservation laws and controlling illegal harvest. Besides protecting the tortoise against poaching other methods of conservation are being used. Relocation of gopher tortoises has been used, with success, to protect tortoises on land that is being developed. Reintroduction into areas from which the tortoises were driven has also been used. Protection of gopher tortoise habitat, such as sand dunes and longleaf pine forests, is also an alternative that can help keep populations high.

Other Comments

Tortoises are known in legend and folklore for their leisurely ways and slow pace. The Florida gopher tortoise follows this legend well with a slow pace of between .27 and .5 miles per hour.

Contributors

Elizabeth J. Axley (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

fossorial

Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

hibernation

the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

References

Burke, Russell L. 1989, Florida gopher tortoise relocation: overview and case study. Biological Conservation 48(4). 295-309.

Carr, Archie. 1952. Handbook of Turtles. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Oliver, James. 1955. North American Amphibians and Reptiles. Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.

Stap, Don. 1996. Trials of an Ancient Wanderer: gopher tortoises face disease and habitat loss. Audubon Jan/Feb 1996. 76-80.