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Living Sanibel: Gopher Tortoise plays important role in circle of life

By Staff | Sep 17, 2011

Considered a keystone species, the gopher tortoise plays an important role in the lives of many other creatures. Some 300 to 400 species use active or abandoned gopher tortoise burrows, including the threatened indigo snake, gopher frog, burrowing owl, cotton mouse, rattlesnake, coachwhip snake, and 32 types of spiders. An excellent excavator, the gopher tortoise digs burrows that have been documented to be as long as 47 feet and more than 18 feet deep!

The gopher tortoise is strictly a land animal. It is related to the Galapagos tortoise, which can grow to 880 pounds and is also terrestrial. The easiest way to distinguish the gopher tortoise from another turtle is by its high, dark, rounded shell and its front feet, which are spade-like with heavy protective scales.

The gopher tortoise is known to stop traffic on occasion as it forages. If you discover a turtle or tortoise crossing a road and are unsure what kind it is, take it to the edge of the road and let it continue on but do not release it into any body of water. There is an empty shell at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) on Sanibel from a gopher tortoise that was placed into the Gulf of Mexico by a well-meaning but seriously misguided tourist who found it browsing on beach-dune vegetation and thought it was a lost sea turtle. The combination of saltwater and wave action quickly drowned the poor gopher tortoise.

No matter the species of turtle you help across any road or bike path, always ferry it along in the direction it was heading. It may be following the scent of a mate, changing habitat, nesting, or looking for food. Returning the animal to where it just came from will likely result in it crossing the same street or intersection a few minutes later, putting itself at risk again. It is now believed that some water turtles can see polarized light and use this ability to navigate over land to find other habitable bodies of water.

The gopher tortoise’s natural range runs from extreme southwestern South Carolina across Georgia and into southeastern Louisiana. Its population has been severely impacted by development. Until July 30, 2007, when Florida rescinded the incidental take permits, the gopher tortoise was commonly plowed under by commercial and subdivision developers. It has moved from a species of special concern to its current status as threatened in Florida, and its population statewide is in decline. It has also been impacted by upper respiratory tract disease, which can result in death.

Although predominantly an herbivore, feeding on berries, grass, fruit, and cactus flowers, the gopher tortoise will sometimes scavenge carrion as well. It is preyed upon by a host of creatures, the smallest being the fire ant, which has been known to attack hatchlings. Other predators include gray fox, armadillos, snakes, and raptors. The slow-moving gopher tortoise was once a favorite with early settlers who would, upon finding one, simply turn it over on its back and return later to bring it home for the kettle; hence, the comical but accurate nickname, Hoover chicken.

The best way to find a gopher tortoise is to find an active burrow. It has a home range of two to five miles but generally does not stray more than several hundred yards from its burrow to forage. If you do come upon one, please let it feed and do not pick it up or disturb it. The gopher tortoise is one of only four species of land tortoise remaining in North America. The others are the Desert tortoise of California, Nevada, and New Mexico; the Berlandier’s tortoise of southern Texas; and the Bolson tortoise of Mexico, which was reintroduced into New Mexico in 2007.