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Gopherus polyphemus

Gopher Tortoise

Florida distribution: entire state.

Identification: this is the only tortoise native to Florida. Up to 24cm. 

 

This species lives in burrows it constructs in upland areas, which unfortunately (for the tortoises) are prime areas for development. The Gopher Tortoise is considered a "Keystone" species because its burrows, both those in use and ones abandoned by the tortoises,  are used by many other animals. Both invertebrates and vertebrates. Currently the tortoise is listed as a "Species of Special Concern" and afforded some protection, but it is likely to be moved up to the category of Threatened soon.

People often wonder when they see a Gopher Tortoise on the road if they are allowed to help it cross. I think the unofficial position is that you will not get in trouble for helping a tortoise across a road. Just put it across in the direction it was heading (this goes for all turtles). Turtles don't stroll for fun. If they are out and about it is for a reason. If you turn them around they are likely to head back in their original direction once you leave. Moving them across the road is one thing but...

 

Do not relocate tortoises on your own! There is a disease (URD Upper Respiratory Disease) in Gopher Tortoises that can be fatal to them. Do not chance that you will pick up a seemingly healthy, but infected, tortoise and move it to an area with uninfected tortoises. Thereby spreading the disease. It is hard to not want to move them sometimes when you see them in areas where they will likely get hit by a car, but keep in mind the potential damage you may do by moving them.

In addition.

This species is protected in the state of Florida and you are not allowed to possess any. This includes living Gopher Tortoises, their meat, eggs and shells. A permit can be obtained to possess a shell for educational purposes.

 

For more information, check out the site below

 

Gopher Tortoises usually remain close to their burrow and when disturbed will often make a run for cover. The first Gopher I saw after moving to Florida taught me this. I was working one day and noticed a Gopher out in the field. I went out with my camera to take a picture. As I got close I expected it to behave like the Mediterranean tortoises I was familiar with and withdraw into its shell. Instead it took off running. I do mean mean running, stumpy little legs pistoning away. It was a sunny day and I guess it was fully charged. I got in front of the tortoise thinking it would stop and I would get my picture. Instead, it stopped, let out a noise like a deep sigh and tore off in another direction. I moved again and it resumed its original course and practically launched itself into its burrow

Female Gopher Tortoise in burrow. Notice the tick on neck (right side of picture).

Top view of a Gopher Tortoise.

Plastral view of same Gopher Tortoise.

Head shot of same Gopher Tortoise.

A rare sight, a Gopher Tortoise hatchling.

What follows may disturb some, but needs to be seen. Development of Gopher habitat is the main threat to the species right now. Upper Respiratory Disease, road mortality, and consumption by humans for food are other threats. Though I do not know what order these last three should be placed in. I do know that consumption by humans is far more common than one would think in this day and age. And though it is illegal, it is impossible for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to be everywhere. It is unlikely that someone who eats Gopher Tortoises will read this, but if you do and are... then stop. If you know someone who eats Gophers try to enlighten them. If you know that Gopher consumption is going on and you don't know the person well enough to have this conversation, then contact your local Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. I do not have a problem with people eating turtle meat, though I would not eat it myself, as long as it is sustainable. Gopher Tortoise consumption is not sustainable. They are slow to grow, slow to reproduce, and facing enough challenges without ending up in a stewpot. 

What follows are pictures of an area in Leesburg Florida,  where over 200 Gopher shells were discarded after being butchered. News reports set it at over a 100. Well, over 200 is also over 100, I guess. The site was brought to my attention late in January 2004 and I passed the information along to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

 

 

The main pile. This natural depression is layers deep with Gopher shells. Other shells were scattered in the nearby area.

World renowned turtle expert Dr. Peter Pritchard and turtle enthusiast Pat Carew document the site. 

Aside from shells, a number  of tortoise skulls were scattered about. The limb and neck  bones were nowhere to be found. They and the meat surrounding them were probably taken elsewhere. 

Many of the shells resembled this one with two holes punched in the carapace. The holes occur where the limb attachments are. They were punched out like this to make it easier to remove the head and limbs which support the small amount of meat on this animal. Most likely this was done with a hammer. It is not as the Orlando Sentinel article stated due to a "Gopher Puller" which is used to hook into a limb or the shell and pull the tortoise out of its burrow. Also littering the area were hundreds of beer bottles and beer cans. 

 

The remainder of the shells were butchered by splitting the shell  along the bridge.

When I found this bag I said aloud "I wonder what is in this", someone replied "probably an abortion". They weren't far from the truth.

The bag contained two shells. Both split along the bridge. The one on the right was inside the one on the left. The left shell contained a skull and some tortoise eggshells.

Close-up.

One of two Peninsula Cooter Pseudemys floridana peninsularis remains found in the area. It was punched out in the same way as the Gophers.

A piece of one of three sets of Florida Softshell Apalone ferox remains. This is a plastral piece.

 

Part of the remains of the single Snapping Turtle Chelydra serpentina shell found in the area.

One of a dozen or so Raccoon skulls found in the area. The predator of tortoise eggs and juvenile tortoises ends up in the same stewpot and garbage pile as its prey.

Most of the nearly complete shells laid out.

photo courtesy of Pat Carew

Nearly 160 complete Gopher shells with enough partial remains in the area to drive the count towards 250. Each of the tortoises here represents a huge loss to the populations they came out of. From the small number of eggs laid to the fewer that survive nest predation and hatch. Then 15+ years of growth, barring predation, road mortality, or development. Only to be pulled out of a burrow, or picked up off the road and whacked with a hammer or split with an axe. To make a cheap meal for someone who evidently had enough money for plenty of 40oz beers. Some say this is a cultural tradition. That may be true, but there are plenty of traditions that have faded away because the times changed. We are not in the days of the Frontier, or the Plantation, or the Depression. Judging from the number of obese people I see every day; food appears to be both plentiful and cheap.  The time of this "tradition" has to pass because the species cannot survive this in addition to habitat development, if it can even survive the latter. The new tradition involving Gopher Tortoises should be one involving  education, conservation and, if need be, prosecution.

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