Description of a Gopher Tortoise
A gopher tortoise is a fairly large land reptile. They have scales on their front legs to protect them while digging and burrowing. Their legs are very short and strong, with wide flat claws for digging. The Gopher Tortoise shell is dark brown to grey-black in color, with a yellow bottom, also called a plastron. Males have a concave bottom shell, and females have a more flat bottom shell.
Gopher tortoises weigh between 10-20 pounds, have a length of up to 13 inches long, and their shell height can reach around 12 inches.
The estimated life span of a wild gopher tortoise is 40 to 60 years, and tortoises that live in captivity can live more than 100 years due to better health care and protection from predators. They are threatened by predators and habitat destruction.
Where is the Gopher Tortoises found?
The Gopher Tortoise lives in North America and originated an estimated 60 million years ago. It is seen as a keystone species, as it has a large effect on its environment because they dig burrows. The burrows provide homes and shelter to some 360 other species of animals.
Gopher Tortoise Diet
Gopher Tortoises are herbivores and eat around 300 different types of plants. Their main diet is broad-leaved grass, wiregrass, terrestrial legumes, and regular grass. They also eat fruits such as pawpaw, gopher apples, blackberries, saw palmetto berries, and mushrooms. Flowers are also a part of their diet like Richardia, Dyschoriste, Tillandsia, and nettles.
Gopher Tortoise Burrows
Known for their digging ability, they spend a vast amount of time in long burrows. They can reach lengths of 48 feet, and 10 ft deep. The burrows protect the gopher tortoises from heat, winter cold, predators, and fire. They dig several burrows in their home range, which is around 4 acres. They are solitary animals, living alone except during breeding season.
Gopher Tortoises Breeding
Gopher tortoises use courting rituals during the mating season of April to November. Females lay about 6 eggs, but have been known to lay up to 25 eggs. They only lay eggs once a year which take 90-100 days to incubate and hatch. The nest will be a mound of dirt or sand area by the entrance of their burrow.
The sex of the eggs is temperature-dependent. When the eggs are laid they are neither female nor male, the offspring is determined by the temperature of the nest. If the temperature of where the eggs lay is below 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), then a male will be born; if the temp is higher than it will be a female.
When they hatch, tortoises are super small and cute, at only 1-2 inches (3-5 cm) long. They stay cute and small for a while, and grow slowly, only an inch a year. Their very soft shells leave them vulnerable to predators. At 10-15 years old, the gopher tortoise will reach maturity, and they will start the mating cycle.
Predators of the Gopher Tortoise:
Gopher tortoises face danger from nest predators, which include foxes, raccoons, skunks, fire ants, and armadillos. Burrows help to protect the baby tortoises from these predators. Baby gopher tortoises are vulnerable until about 6 to 7 years of age which is when their shell finally hardens.
Like many other animals, gopher tortoises are subject human predators. People have been known to eat gopher tortoises for 1000’s of years. It is now illegal to hunt, eat, or possess their shells. Unfortunately illegal hunting continues in parts of the US.