by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
The Gopher tortoise, Gopherus Polyphemus, is one of five North American tortoise species and is the only native tortoise found east of the Mississippi. In Florida, the Gopher Tortoise is found in all 67 counties. The islands of Sanibel and Captiva are home to a healthy population of tortoises. Often, they can be seen along high and dry roadsides and along the interior of our sandy coastal dunes.
Gopher tortoises average 9 – 11 inches in length when fully grown and take on a dark brown or gray coloration as they age. Young tortoises tend to be yellow-orange and brown and even at a very young age exhibit the characteristic shovel-like forelimbs and stumpy elephant-like flattened hind feet.
These tortoises are quite long-lived, living up to 50 -60 years in the wild and possibly longer in captivity. The majority of its long life is spent close to or in its burrow. The shovel-like forelimbs are efficient in excavating burrows averaging 15 feet long and 6 feet deep. On the islands, due to the shallow water table, the burrows could be shallower and could be damaged by cave-ins much easier than deeper burrows. Although shallower, the length of the burrows will remain close to mainland burrows. They often use multiple burrows throughout their lives, depending on the individual. The burrow maintains a stable temperature and humidity year-round, which allows the tortoise to maintain its body temperature in the burrow. In addition to climate control, the burrow provides shelter from predators and fire and helps provide a home for more than 350 other Florida species of wildlife. For this, the Gopher tortoise is considered a “keystone species”, providing the burrow which can provide a home to burrowing owls, Florida mice, Indigo snakes, rabbits, fox and several invertebrates. With Sanibel’s abundant wildlife, this serves as a very important function for the island tortoises.
Suitable habitat for the Gopher tortoise is sandy, well-drained soils in an area of relatively open canopy and low growing herbaceous vegetation to feed on. Having to overcome heavy, thick low growth in a wooded area would make it very difficult for the tortoise to move around. Due to this, fire is very important to renewing the habitat of the Gopher tortoise.
For the most part, these tortoises acquire water from the fresh new growth of low-growing plants that they feed on, but they’ve been observed seeking out pooled water after a rainstorm for a drink. I once witnessed a tortoise collecting water with its mouth wide open as it rolled down a concrete driveway……dangit, where was my camera that day!
The Gopher tortoise was classified as a state-designated threatened species in 2007 and a statewide Gopher Tortoise Management Plan was created. The statewide goals include:
• Minimize the loss of Gopher tortoises
• Increase and improve habitat
• Enhance and restore populations
• Maintain the Gopher tortoises function as a keystone species
The difficulty is that the prime habitat for the tortoises is also prime habitat for development, creating habitat loss through habitat destruction, fragmentation and degradation. The limited remaining development on Sanibel and Captiva ensures refuge for local tortoises but land management for existing populations is crucial. The refuge, City of Sanibel and SCCF all have lands that are home to tortoises and all work diligently to manage the habitats for these turtles. Support of their efforts is very important as overgrown lands cannot support tortoises.
You’re certain to see tortoises around the islands. Please just observe and don’t touch. If you happen across a tortoise crossing a road, carefully pick it up from the sides holding away from your body ( they pee!! ) and carry it off of the road in the direction that it was heading. Tortoises are terrestrial so never place them in the water. Sad but true, many local fisherman have found tortoises out in the gulf and in local water bodies.
These interesting, gentle, long-lived creatures are of great value to the island and its wildlife. Hopefully, you can catch a site of a tortoise out basking in the sun by its burrow during one of our beautiful winter days on the islands.