Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
By Sara Green, SCWF Director of Education
The gopher tortoise is one of the oldest living species, originating in North America over 60 million years ago. Today their range includes many parts of Florida, southern areas of Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and the tip of Eastern Louisiana. They are generally about a foot long and weight about 30 lbs. with a very drab tan or gray coloring. They have broad, flat front legs, shaped like a shovel for use in digging. The back legs are much rounder.
Gopher tortoises are unique in that they dig large burrows, which provide protection from predators and shelter from the weather. Other tortoises just hide under vegetation or dig very short, shallow burrows. Gopher tortoise burrows average around 30 feet long, and depths vary from around 3-20 feet. These burrows make the gopher tortoise a popular animal in the local ecosystem because many other animals like to share their burrows. Snakes, gopher frogs, mice, foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, lizards, frogs, toads and invertebrates have been observed sharing burrows with tortoises or living in abandoned burrows.
Gopher tortoises are listed as endangered in South Carolina. Much of the reason for the decline of this species, as with so many others, is loss of habitat. In the past, many tortoises were killed for food or by people trying to kill rattlesnakes that often share their burrows. Because they spend much of their time underground, it is hard to get an accurate count of gopher tortoises in South Carolina. In an effort to create and manage gopher tortoise habitat, artificial planting of longleaf has proven successful in many areas. Since the tortoise requires an open forest floor with sunny areas and grasses for food, regular burning or thinning of trees is required to maintain this type of habitat. The protection of this species is critical to the entire food web, since many other animals depend on the burrows of the gopher tortoise.
Information from: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Gopher Tortoise Organization and Gopher Tortoise Services, Inc.