How to be a Good Gopher Tortoise Neighbor
A threatened species, Gopher tortoises are super important to Florida’s unique and delicate ecosystems. Learn more about these adorable creatures, and how you can help protect them!
Did you know that the Gopher tortoise is the state tortoise of Florida? Despite this highest of honors, these big guys are a threatened species, affected by both predation and habitat destruction (here’s looking at you, Florida land developers…) So, how can you help? The first step is educating yourself! Read on to learn a bit more about this fascinating and endearing species.
Gopher tortoises can live a really, really, really long time if their lives aren’t cut short by predation and habitat destruction. Their average life span is about 60 years! They are herbivores, and their diets consist primarily of grasses, flowers, mushrooms and fruits. They are also extremely valuable to Florida’s diverse ecosystems, as the burrows they dig provide shelter for hundreds of other species. Because of this, Gopher tortoises are known as a “keystone species.” They usually live in sand dunes, pine flatwoods, and scrubs, all places with lots of sandy soil for them to burrow in! They tend to dig their nests May-June and produce about six eggs a year, many of which never hatch due to predators.
So they need our help, right? The answer is yes, but it’s important to be mindful of whether your assistance is actually benefitting the animal. It is crucial to know the difference between an animal that needs help, and an animal who is just chillin’ in the wild and should be left to its own devices, as well as the proper steps to take if you do find a tortoise that needs a helping hand. The most important thing to remember is that tortoises are NOT turtles, and they don’t live in lakes or ponds. Never put a Gopher tortoise in the water! If you see one in the road you can help it across in the direction it was already headed, however, the best thing to do in most other situations is just leave them alone, and don’t block their burrows.
There are a few local organizations that are dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating injured tortoises, such as Turtle Rescue USA (a part of the Central Florida Wildlife Center, a non-profit wildlife rescue), the Gopher Tortoise Council, and City Bats Conservancy (yes, they are dedicated to educating the public about gopher tortoises as well as bats). You can even see a gopher tortoise in the flesh at the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford! If you love natural Florida, you owe Gopher tortoises a helping hand!