Photo Credit: Carrie Threadgill
Juvenile Gopher Tortoise, Photo Credit: Ericha Shelton-Nix
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Gopherus polyphemus
STATUS: Threatened. Greatly reduced from historic abundance; locally common in only a few protected areas. Western population (Louisiana; Mississippi; and Mobile, Washington, and Choctaw counties in Alabama) listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. HIGH CONSERVATION CONCERN.
DESCRIPTION: The gopher tortoise, also called, gopher, gopher turtle, or hoover chicken, is a large land turtle that burrows dens underground. The tortoise shell is a collection of scutes that make up the top of the shell called the carapace. The carapace is dome-shaped and can grow as long as 15 inches from front to back. The belly of the tortoise is made of smooth plates called the plastron. Like the carapace, the tortoise is grayish brown with large flipper-like, heavily-scaled front legs and strong toenails for digging. The back legs are elephant like and used for pushing ahead or backing up. The tortoise has a reduced tail between the back legs. To the front of the plastron just under the head are gular projections that are longer on males than on females. The plastron is pale yellow with the scutes usually worn. The carapace on juvenile tortoises is more yellowish brown with well-defined concentric growth rings on each scute. Older tortoise’s scutes are usually worn smooth. Sexually dimorphic, the males are smaller on average and have longer gular projections in front and a deep concave rear plastron. The female has a plastron with shorter gular projections in front and is flat to the rear. Larger mental glands are found under the chin of older males. In North America there are four extant species (desert tortoise, Texas tortoise, Bolson tortoise and the gopher tortoise), all occurring in deep sand habitats.
DISTRIBUTION: Gopher tortoises occur in scattered populations in sandy upland habitat from southeastern South Carolina, south into Georgia and peninsular Florida, and west through the panhandle of Florida, south Alabama, south Mississippi, and on to the southeastern regions of Louisiana. This distribution coincides with the historic long leaf pine ecosystems of the lower coastal plain. In Alabama gopher tortoise populations usually occur below the fall line in the Southern Pine Plains and Buhrstone/Lime Hills ecoregions. Small populations are found along alluvial sandy ridges that occur along south Alabama waterways. In Alabama, gopher tortoises are protected by federal and state laws and found in the following counties: Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Baldwin, Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Clarke, Crenshaw, Coffee, Conecuh, Covington, Dale, Escambia, Geneva, Henry, Houston, Monroe, Montgomery, Pike, and Wilcox. Small populations occur in Autauga and Macon counties where they were introduced by man.
HABITAT: The largest populations occur in dry, deep sandy soils where the overhead canopy is open. This allows the tortoise suitable habitat for digging deep burrows, and the required sunlight on the ground for thermo-regulation, nesting, and incubation of the eggs. The open canopy also allows for the growth of plants like grasses and forbs on which the tortoises feed. The best populations in Alabama are found in longleaf pine-scrub oak-wiregrass sand hills that are frequently burned. The more loamy soils found in the longleaf-wiregrass Flatwoods support small scattered populations. Clear cuts created by timber operations where gophers occur will support the tortoise for the first few years, but will be abandoned as the canopy closes, usually causing the tortoises to move to the edges of the woodland roads. Pine plantations that are managed for open canopy by thinning and burning will provide the minimum requirements to support a tortoise population. Dense hardwood and unburned pine/hardwood habitats are unsuitable for tortoise populations. Agricultural fields and wildlife food plots will support some individuals but are considered marginal habitat. Tortoises found in these habitats are usually found on the field edges and fence lines where they are not disturbed by annual plantings. Loss of habitat and historic over hunting have caused a large statewide decline of tortoise populations. There are very few public places that have tortoise populations in Alabama and only the Conecuh National Forest and Fort Rucker Military Base have more than 100 individuals.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: These land turtles dig burrows up to nine feet deep and 20 to 30 feet long with a large chamber at the bottom. These provide important escape cover, and refuge for many species of other animals in the sand hills-longleaf pine community. Gopher tortoises are herbivores that feed primarily on wiregrass, broadleaf grasses, legumes and nonlegume forbs. They are considered opportunistic feeders and will usually eat what is available to them. Active during the day, they spend time foraging, basking and traveling to other tortoise burrows. The remainder of the time is spent at the mouth of the burrow or in the burrow, depending upon daytime temperatures. Males travel farther than females, especially during breeding season, with the home range size depending on the amount of groundcover vegetation. The more groundcover, the smaller the home range. Mating occurs from April through November, peaking in August and September. Females lay an average of five to eight eggs in the spring, usually on the apron of the female’s burrow – typically built in late May to early June. If successful, the eggs hatch and the hatchlings appear the first week of September. Hatchlings are preyed upon by a wide variety of reptilian, avian and mammalian predators. Tortoises grow slowly and are long-lived. They may require 18 to 20 years to reach sexual maturity. Adults of 40 or more years have few predators, other than humans and insects.
Author: James Altiere, Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
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Photo by Ashley Osburn