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What Is a Texas Tortoise?

By B. Chisholm
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The Texas tortoise or Gopherus berlandieri is the smallest of the four tortoise species native to North America. They are found throughout Texas and in the northern provinces of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas in Mexico. It is illegal to have one without a permit as they are on the threatened species list of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

The shell of the Texas tortoise has yellowy-orange plates and the male can be differentiated from the female by the fact that the underside of his shell is slightly concave. The female, on the other hand, has a flat underbelly and is usually slightly smaller in size. The concave nature of the male's shell allows for easier mounting during reproduction. The Texas tortoise usually grows to between eight and nine inches (20.32 to 22.86 cm) in length.

The male Texas tortoise is usually territorial and may fight another male who enters his space. They have a forked projection at the front of their underbelly shell which is used in these fights. Attempts are often made to turn the opponent onto their back, a position from which they may not be able to recover. In the desert conditions that they live in this can result in death by overheating.

A pallet, or depression in the ground, dug by the Texas tortoise, is where it spends most of its time. Other tortoises dig burrows into the ground but the Texas tortoise prefers to remain above ground. During summer, they remain in their pallet in the heat of the day and then wander about during cooler periods. Depending on the climate in which they are living, they may hibernate during the cold winter months. It is not unusual, however, for them to become active during warm spells in winter.

As with all tortoises, the Texas tortoise is a herbivore, or vegetarian. They feed mainly on grasses, weeds and succulent plants such as the prickly pear. These succulent plants provide most of their water, too, as in the arid areas they live in, water can be hard to come by. Slow-moving by nature, they do not move large distances.

Due to their threatened existence, it is illegal to remove a Texas tortoise from its natural habitat. Some tortoise breeders do breed them but they require special care and handling. If they are kept under the wrong conditions, they will die. Should a person wish to keep a tortoise as a pet, expert advice should be sought regarding their very specific needs.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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