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What is a Gopher Tortoise?

By B. Koch
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The gopher tortoise is native to the southeastern United States. It grows to about 12 inches (30 centimeters) long and is largely an herbivore. Gopher tortoises are unique because of the large burrows they create that provide shelter, not only for themselves, but also for many other creatures.

On average, less than 1 foot long (30 centimeters), the gopher tortoise has been known to grow as long as 16 inches (40 centimeters) and usually does not weigh more than 30 pounds (14 kilograms). Its front legs are broad and flat for digging, while its back legs are thick and columnar. Hatchling tortoises are generally 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) long, and grow about 3/4 of an inch (2 centimeters) per year. Gopher tortoises live to be over 100 years old.

Gopher tortoises live in Florida, southern Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi as well as in Alabama and eastern Louisiana. Their environment consists of scrub, pine flatwoods, and beach dunes. A suitable habitat must consist of sandy soil for digging burrows, sunny areas, and plenty of small plants for food.

The tortoise's daily diet includes low-growing plants, mostly grasses and legumes. They also eat apples, blackberries, and other fruits. Although mainly herbivores, these tortoises have been known to scavenge dead animals or excrement. Most of their water comes from their food, and they are only ever seen drinking water in times of drought.

The unusual name for this animal comes from the fact that it creates and lives in large underground burrows, much like gophers do. This is an unusual trait for tortoises, as most live above ground and hide in undergrowth or brush. The burrows protect the gopher tortoise both from predators and from the elements. They vary in size, and may be anywhere from 6 feet (1.8 meters) to 50 feet (15 meters) long, averaging 30 feet (9 meters). Typically they are between 3 to 20 feet (0.9 to 6 meters) deep.

The burrows these animals generate are important to the ecosystems that gopher tortoises thrive in. This is because they provide homes for other animals such as snakes, frogs, mice, foxes, and burrowing owls. Sometimes these creatures will cohabitate with tortoises. At other times, they will reside there after the burrow has been abandoned.

In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as a threatened species. Many tortoises were taken from their habitat to become pets, removing them from the breeding pool. Today, the biggest threat to the gopher tortoise is habitat destruction.

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