Georgia State Reptile
Gopher Tortoise (common name)
Gopherus polyphemus (scientific name)
Gopher tortoises live primarily in the southeastern United States. They are well adapted for digging, and digging is in fact one of their primary activities, as well as what gives this tortoise its common name. When a gopher tortoise isn’t in its burrow, walking around its home range and burrowing are its main activities. Gopher tortoises are important to the environment because they disperse the seeds of the plants they eat. Their burrows also provide housing for many other small animals, some rare, making it a keystone species. The gopher tortoise was designated the official state reptile of Georgia in 1989.
A gopher tortoise shell is a uniform deep brown to deep gray, often nearly black. The undershell is usually yellowish. Newly hatched turtles are lighter, but their shells get darker with age. Their front legs are adapted for digging with protective scales and are shaped like shovels, while their back legs are heavy and stout. Male gopher tortoises have longer tails than females, scent glands under their chins, and concave undershells. Females are flat underneath. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to tell males from females.
Up to 100 years; average of 50 years in the wild.
Originally longleaf pine forests. Sandy ridges, sand dunes, and other dry areas.
Range: Southeastern U.S. from southwestern South Carolina to Florida and westward into Louisiana.
Conservation: Threatened/Under Review. Predators and habitat destruction are reducing the gopher tortoise population. Away from the Atlantic Coast, populations are fragmented, and the groups west of Alabama’s Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers are considered threatened.
Gopher tortoises dig burrows that are as long as 48 feet (14.5 m) and as deep as 9.8 feet (3 m). Depth often depends on the water table. These tortoises prefer to stay underground where they are protected from predators, extreme heat and cold, and even fire. Gopher tortoises usually live and graze in flat longleaf pine grasslands. They choose to live alone most of the year and usually have a well-defined home range with more than one burrow.
During breeding season (February through September though most often in May and June), a female builds one nest for three to 14 eggs in a sandy mound near her burrow. Eggs hatch roughly 100 days later. The incubation temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings: Sand temperatures above 85°F (30°C) breed females, while lower temperatures breed males. Hatchlings have soft shells, which makes them especially defenseless. The survival rate for young tortoises is low. Predators such as foxes, skunks, armadillos, and raccoons destroy most nests, and less than six percent of eggs produce tortoises that live a year or more.
Gopher tortoises grow very slowly, perhaps less than one inch (2.5 cm) each year. They are not mature until their shells are about 9 inches (23 cm) long. Depending on their environment, they may be between 10 and 21 years old at maturity.
Top land speed recorded: 4 mph (6.4 kph).
Mainly wide-leaved grasses and wiregrass. Also seeds, mushrooms, and some fruit. Gopher tortoises usually get their water from their food and very rarely drink.
Breeding interval: Annual
Hatching period: August–September
Average nest size: 6 eggs
Size at birth: 3–5 cm (1.5–2 in.) long
Click to enlarge an image
Raw Data Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Author: World Trade Press