Gopher Tortoise

Creature Feature – Gopher Tortoise

This week’s featured creature is the Gopher Tortoise. 

Originating 60 million years ago, the gopher tortoise is one of the oldest living species on the planet. It is named as such because it digs deep burrows — like a gopher, a species of burrowing rodent. It became the official state tortoise of Florida in 2008 and is considered a keystone species. 

Gopher Tortoise


Scientific Name: Gopherus polyphemus 

Phylum: Chordata

Order: Testudines

Family: Testudinidae

Genus: Gopherus

© The Nature Conservancy

Gopher Tortoise Fact File

? Size: Individuals can measure up to 28cm long and weigh up to 4.5kg

? Distribution: These long-lived reptiles can be found from southern South Carolina through the southern half of Georgia, into Florida, and west into southern Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. However, it’s nearly extinct in South Carolina and Louisiana and rare in both Mississippi and Alabama

? Diet: These tortoises are herbivore scavengers and opportunities grazers. The diet consists of plants primarily, of which they consume over 300 species. They also eat mushrooms and fruits such as the gopher apple and nettles. A very small proportion of their diet is composed of fungi, lichens, carrion, bones, and insects.

? Behaviour: The gopher tortoise is a keystone species, meaning that it’s very important to the health of the ecosystem it inhabits. Gopher tortoises share their burrows with more than 350 other species, providing shelter to hundreds of different animals ranging from frogs to owls and even endangered indigo snakes

? IUCN Status: Vulnerable. Their main threat is one faced by many species worldwide: habitat loss. One of their favorite habitats, longleaf pine forest, once covered 90 million acres unbroken from Virginia to Florida to Texas. Less than 5% of original longleaf pine forest remains today