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Tortoises in Georgia

There is one tortoise native to Georgia and that is the gopher tortoise. This tortoise is also known as the Florida gopher tortoise. The majority of gopher tortoise can be found in Florida although wild populations exist in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Although just a single tortoise species is endemic to Georgia, several other tortoises can be found within the state. These tortoises are captive-bred. Some popular captive tortoises you are sure to find in Georgia include leopard tortoise, sulcata, and even greek and Hermann’s tortoises. Since Georgia is relatively warm, many tortoise species can make this state their home.

Tortoise Species Native to Georgia

Although there are several turtles in Georgia, only one tortoise species is native to Georgia and this is the gopher tortoise. Apart from the gopher tortoise, other nonnative tortoises can be found in Georgia. These include sulcata, leopard tortoise, and greek tortoise.

1. Gopher Tortoise

Gopher Tortoise Eating (Gopherus polyphemus)
Gopher Tortoise Eating (Gopherus polyphemus)
  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Gopherus polyphemus
  • Other Common Names: Florida gopher tortoise
  • Adult Size: 9 to 15 inches
  • Lifespan: 40 to 70 years

Gopherus polyphemus is native to the southeastern United States. They can be found mainly in Florida although wild populations exist in Mississippi, southern Alabama, and Georgia. The gopher tortoise is very important to their ecosystem as they are keystone species. The burrows these tortoises build are useful to many other animals. The species is also the state reptile of Georgia.

The species is terrestrial and prefers arid regions such as grassland and scrub forests. They are known to inhabit xeric hammocks, pine mixed hardwoods, prairie, pine flatwoods, scrubby flatwoods, coastal dunes, scrubs, and sandhills.

As with most species of the genus Gopherus, gopher tortoises spend most of their time in burrows they dig themselves. These burrows shelter them from heat & cold as they provide a steady temperature. The burrows also provide humidity/moisture and protection from predators and wildfires.

Adult gophers are moderately sized turtles. They may even be considered large turtles. The carapace length of mature members is usually 6 to 10 inches. However, these turtles are capable of reaching lengths of 16 inches. They are half as high as they are long. The average weight of a gopher tortoise is 8.8 lb or 4 kg. However, they are capable of weighing as much as 13.2 lb or 6 kg.

While Gopherus polyphemus is primarily herbivorous, they are also known to feed on animal foods. The diet of the gopher tortoise is well known.  A large portion (about 80%) of their diet consists of grass found in their natural habitat. They eat morning glory, bindweed legumes, prickly pear cactus, blackberries, pawpaw, and wiregrass, and other plant parts such as leaves, flowers, fruits, stems, and even shoots. They also feed on feces, insects, bones, carrion, lichens, and fungi.

While adults are well protected by their tough shells and skin, juveniles, hatchlings, and eggs are very vulnerable. Predators of the eggs and hatchlings are several snake species, bald eagles, hawks, skunks, wild boars, bobcats, coyotes, and raccoons.

While adults are tougher and more difficult to keep, they can still be harmed by feral and domestic dogs and cats, as well as bobcats and coyotes. Humans are also significant predators of the gopher tortoise.

As already mentioned, Gopherus polyphemus is a keystone species. This is because of the burrows they build. More than 350 species are known to use the burrows built by gopher tortoises.

These burrows help the wild populations of several species listed as Threatened under the ESA (Endangered Species Act). Because of the importance of the gopher tortoise to their ecosystem, the trade of gopher tortoises is strictly forbidden. This makes it almost impossible to obtain this turtle as a pet.

Regardless of this, it is possible to obtain a specimen through adoption. I advise against keeping this tortoise as a pet. If you wish to have a pet tortoise, you should consider any of the other tortoises covered in this article.

2. Eastern box turtle

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) walking in grass
Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) walking in grass

While technically not a tortoise, T. c. carolina is a land turtle just like the state tortoise of Georgia – the gopher tortoise. Additionally, it closely resembles the gopher tortoise. Another plus is that the box turtle is legal to keep as a pet in Georgia although a permit may be required. They are also easier to to house and keep.

T. c. carolina is a land turtle. The species are slow to mature and live extremely long lives. Additionally, they also move very slowly. 

The species is found mostly in the eastern United States, thus their common name – the eastern box turtle. They can be found as far north as Maine, and as far south as Florida. While not state-listed or federally listed, T. c. carolina is still a protected species that carries a Conservation status of Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

The species are terrestrial but almost always live close to water bodies such as ponds, and streams. They can be found in pastures, open woodlands, and marshy meadows.

The eastern box turtle looks very much like a tortoise. They have a bridgeless, hinged plastron. The carapace is high domed and brown with yellow markings.

Ss are omnivorous and fed on both plants and animal foods. In the wild, they are known to eat worms, slugs, salamanders, frogs, insects, eggs, mushrooms, berries, roots, flowers, and many more. The species is primarily carnivorous when young.

In captivity, these turtles can be fed a diet of vegetables, fruit, grass, and hay. This should make up about 50% of their diet. The rest of their diet should consist of low-fat proteins such as cooked lean meat, insects, slugs, and worms. You can also supplement their diet with low-fat dog food. The ‘low-fat’ aspect of the diet is very important.

Although the eastern box turtle is a land turtle, they still require a humid environment to thrive. Humidity within the enclosure should be above 70 %. Having a shallow pool/bowl of water will help keep the turtle hydrated.

If you do decide to acquire an eastern box turtle, do so from a reputable breeder.

Common Captive tortoise found in Georgia

3. Leopard Tortoise

Leopard Tortoise (Psammobates pardalis)
Leopard Tortoise (Psammobates pardalis)

The leopard tortoise is one of the best tortoises to keep as a pet. They are relatively easy to care for and are relatively easy to find. These tortoises do not hibernate and as such are best kept in a locale where it doesn’t snow (or locales where winter isn’t excessively cold).

Stigmochelys pardalis is native to Africa and can be found throughout the continent, from East Africa to southern Africa. Despite their wide distribution, the tortoise is absent from the rainforests of Central Africa.

This should tell you a bit about the nature of the tortoise. The turtle lives in arid ecosystems such as savannahs, scrublands, and deserts. 

The leopard tortoise gets its common name from the pattern on the shell which is yellowish with dark spots. This pattern resembles that which is found on a leopard. The dark spots fade over time.

The leopard tortoise is best housed outside. You need to provide a large and spacious enclosure that is fenced. The fence protects the tortoise from predators and keeps them from escaping.

The temperatures should be around 80 to 83 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and above 60 degrees Fahrenheit during the height. You can augment the heating with heat lamps if necessary.

Care for this tortoise is simple as far as you have the space to properly house them. The species is herbivorous and should be feed weeds grass, and herbs. these should make up about 85% of their diet.

They can also be offered green leafy vegetables. Fruits can also be offered on rare occasions. Fruits should only be offered a treat once every month or so.

Some foods that should make up the largest portion of their diet include grasses such as bermudagrass, timothy grass, orchard grass, and several others, succulents such as spotless opuntia cactus pads, hibiscus flowers and plant, dandelions, sowthistle, plantain weeds, and herbs such as mint, cilantro, parsley, and dill.

While leopard tortoise breeders do exist in Georgia, finding one can be tricky. You can always contact an online breeder. Regardless ensure that you acquire the tortoise from a reputable breeder/source.

4. Sulcata Tortoise

African Spurred Tortoise also known as the Sulcata Tortoise(Geochelone (Centrochelys)
African Spurred Tortoise also known as the Sulcata Tortoise(Geochelone (Centrochelys)

Sulcata tortoises are among the largest tortoises in the world. They are considered the third largest tortoise in the world. These tortoises aren’t native to the Americas. Despite their size, these tortoises are popular in North America including in Georgia.

These gentle giants are relatively easy to care for as long as you provide them with a large spacious enclosure. You cannot house these tortoises indoors and that provides one of the biggest challenges of caring for the sulcata.

Sulcatas are natve to subsaharan west africa. They are perfectly adapted to live in arid environments. Additionally, they do not hibernate. As such, it isn’t advisable to keep them in an environment where winter is freezing cold.

Temperatures during the day should be 85 degrees Fahrenheit to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. During the night, a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or above is acceptable. This should be the temperature for most of the year. You can augment temperatures using heat lamps.

Since sulcata tortoises are herbivorous, it is important to feed them a mix of grass, hay, flowers, and dark leafy greens. Grasses and hay should make up 90% of their diet. These include grass cutting, edible flowers, wheatgrass, timothy grass hay, oat hay, orchard grass hay, and meadow grass hay.

Greens and vegetables should make up the remaining 10% of the diet. Some excellent greens include mustard greens, dandelion greens, and turnip greens. Fruits can also be offered occasionally (once or twice a month only).

Conclusion

There aren’t many tortoise species native to Georgia. The only native tortoise species is the gopher tortoise. This species is extremely important to their ecosystems as they are keystone species.

Keystone species are species that play important roles in their exosystem and directly ensure the survival of the ecosystem. Over 350 species depend on the gopher tortoise to thrive.

Because of the importance of the gopher tortoise, any trade of the gopher tortoise is strictly prohibited. Even keeping these turtles as pets is prohibited in the state of Georgia. Regardless, several other tortoises can be kept as pets. These nonnative tortoises such as leopard tortoise thrive in Georgia due to the climate.

If you have any questions or additional information, kindly leave a comment.

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