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Species Description

Gopher Tortoise

Gopherus polyphemus


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Classification

Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Family: Testudinidae

Description

The carapace varies in color from dark brown to grayish-black. The plastron is yellowish. The exposed skin of the head, neck, and legs is grayish black. The largest terrestrial turtle of the southeastern United States. Adults average 15 - 24 cm (5.9 - 9.4 in) in length. The record is 38 cm (15 in). This turtle has shovel-like front legs, stumpy hind legs, and an unhinged plastron.

Life Cycle

Depending on geographic location, sexual maturity in females occurs between 10 and 21 years of age, when the turtle has a carapace length of 22 - 27 cm (8.7 - 10.6 in). Most mating occurs in the spring but some mating activity occurs in the fall. Nesting occurs from late April to mid-July, but most eggs are laid from mid-May to mid-June. In an open, sunny location, 1 - 25 white spherical eggs are laid in a flask-shaped cavity excavated in loose soil. The eggs hatch in 80 - 110 days and the young tortoises dig their way to the surface. An adult Gopher Tortoise may reach 25 years of age and some probably live twice that length of time.

Natural History

The Gopher Tortoise inhabits areas of well-drained, deep, sandy soils and open-canopied forests, such as sandhill and ridge pine-scrub oak forests, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, and beach scrub forest. It avoids moist soils in low-lying areas. This tortoise is considered a keystone species. Both active and abandoned Gopher Tortoise burrows are used by over 100 species of vertebrates and invertebrates. Burrows are usually straight and vary from 2.7 - 6.1 m (8.8 - 20 ft) in length and 1.4 - 2.8 m (4.6 - 9.2 ft) in depth. The burrow has an enlarged chamber at the end where the tortoise sleeps and can turn around. The Gopher Tortoise has a well-defined home range and uses several different burrows throughout the year. The Gopher Tortoise is an herbivore and mainly eats grasses and forbs, but it may also eat fungi, fruits, and carrion. Gopher Tortoise eggs and young are eaten by a variety of small carnivorous mammals such as raccoons, skunks, armadillos, foxes, and opossums. In addition Red-tailed Hawks, Indigo Snakes, Coachwhips, Kingsnakes, and fire ants all feed on young or eggs.

Range

Gopher Tortoise Region Map The Gopher Tortoise ranges from the Atlantic Coastal Plain of extreme southern South Carolina west along the Gulf of Mexico's coastal plains to extreme eastern Louisiana and peninsular Florida. Due to habitat loss, its population has rapidly declined and this species is now dispersed as isolated populations within this range.

Conservation Status

The Gopher Tortoise is listed as a Threatened species by state and federal law. Major perils are habitat loss and disturbance.

Similar Species

The Eastern Box Turtle can be distinguished by its hinged plastron, smaller adult size, and patterned shell.