Gopher tortoises are medium-sized tortoises living in the south-eastern United States. A rather dull animal to look at, the gopher tortoise is almost completely brown, gray, or tan. There are some black places, and on the bottom of the shell, you can see a little bit of yellow as well. If you look at larger tortoises such as the Aldabra giant tortoise or the Galapagos giant tortoise, you might notice a small difference in the front legs of those animals and the front legs of the gopher tortoise. The larger tortoises have claws that almost look like toe nails – they are flatter and don’t have much of a purpose except for protecting the feet. The gopher tortoise, along with other smaller tortoises, has claws that actually look like claws. They are used not only to protect the feet, but also to dig their burrows. The hind feet of all of these tortoises are like elephant feet. They are round and strait, and they have short, stubby nails.
These tortoises have a rather large length range. They can be anywhere from 4 to 11 inches (10-28 cm) long, and can weigh up to 12 pounds (5.5 kg). The average adult is between 9 and 11 inches (23 cm and 28 cm) long, and between 7 and 9 pounds (3.2 and 4.1 kg).
Like most tortoises, the gopher tortoise is diurnal, and are also herbivores like most turtles and tortoises. Short grasses and herbs are these tortoises’ favorite foods, but they will also eat low-hanging fruits and berries, or ones that have fallen to the ground. In captivity, gopher tortoises have been known to especially like the rinds of cantaloupe and watermelon.
Habitat and Range
The gopher tortoise lives in the southeastern United States. This includes most of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Their range also stretches westward enough to include some of Texas and Arkansas. Some sources say that the gopher tortoise only lives in the very southern parts of the states listed above, but others include most if not all of the state land in their range, and even include states further north. Sparse woodlands and grassy fields are the favorite habitats of gopher tortoises. Sand dunes are also possible locations for their burrows.
Gopher tortoises, even though they may not look like it, are actually really good diggers. In their home territories, a single gopher tortoise can have many burrows. They spend the night in one of these burrows. Having many burrows helps them not have to travel as far to go to bed, as they can just use the burrow nearest to where they have been foraging. After all, you wouldn’t want to travel very far each night if you were a tortoise either. Each burrow can be up to 40 feet (12 m) long with a larger chamber at the end. These chambers may be as far as ten feet (3 m) below the surface. Surprisingly, you can actually tell about the size of a tortoise just by looking at its burrow. Gopher tortoises usually make their burrows about as wide as the tortoise is long. This allows it to turn completely around at any point in the burrow.
Gopher tortoise burrows are important for other animals as well. Over one hundred other types of animals (such as burrowing owls, raccoons, and snakes) can use gopher tortoise burrows even if they are occupied!
Status and threats
Gopher tortoises are ranked as Vulnerable on the IUCN. As I say for most animals, habitat destruction is a main threat, but for this animal, it is a little more serious. The main way this happens is in the clearing of forests or pastures for agricultural or commercial uses. These animals used to be hunted for their meat but are now safe from purposeful killing by humans. This is because it is illegal in the United States to keep them as pets, harass them, remove them from their range, and destroy their burrows or their eggs. Some gopher tortoises are still killed accidentally when crossing the road, however. By the way, why did the tortoise cross the road?
Gopher tortoises do have some natural predators, but these are mostly for the young tortoises. Despite being protected by their parents, the young can be consumed by animals such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, armadillos, and opossums. These are some of the same animals they share their burrows with!
The breeding season of these animals starts in April and runs through July. The height of mating season occurs from mid May to mid June. After mating, the female lays up to 25 eggs in up to six different holes in the ground. Usually they only lay around eight eggs each year. About 90 to 100 days later, the young hatch from their eggs and dig their way to the surface. As with many reptiles, incubation temperature determines the gender of the young. For gopher tortoises, those incubated above 86 degrees (30 degrees C) will be females, and those at cooler temperatures will be males.
Gopher tortoise hatchlings are rather tiny compared to the adults. They are only about 1.6 inches (4 cm) long! The picture to the left shows the size of one of these hatchlings on a person’s hand. It takes up to 20 years before these tortoises are ready to have kids of their own. In the wild, gopher tortoises can live for 40 years or more!
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- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Animals of the World: An expert reference guide to 840 amphibians, reptiles and mammals from every continent*
- Gopher tortoise – Tomfriedel
- Gopher tortoise young – Steve Beger
- Gopher tortoise sign – Jeanloujustine
- Mystery animal – Wiki Commons
*Next Door Zoo is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.