Gopher Tortoises Make Me Feel Special, Really

Gopherus_polyphemus NASA, Public Domain

Gopher Tortoise, Photo: NASA, Public Domain

Gopher Tortoises Make Me Feel Special, Really

By Kelly Dean

I know the gopher tortoise is just a tortoise and lacks the glamour of other threatened species like the Florida panther or crocodile, but they live around my semi-rural home and I see them every once in a while. As they are threatened in Florida and protected by law, I feel fortunate that I get to see them as often as I do.

How to feel good

Here’s how they make me feel good. They like crossing the road. They are herbivores that are fond of grassy areas with sandy soil containing palmetto scrub, longleaf pine and the like, so they commute between these areas frequently, where their burrows are located.

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Longleaf Pine Savanna, Photo: Kelly Dean

They spend most of their time in these burrows out of the heat, but tend to move more in the cooler wintertime. This is why they cross the road. Like the proverbial chicken, they want to get to the other side.

When I see them in the road, I pull over and gently lift them from the sides and move them off the road in the exact direction they were initially traveling. I do not relocate them elsewhere; although, I’m very tempted.

From experience, they will likely hiss at me, which is gopher tortoise language for “Thank you for moving me across the road more swiftly, my friend. I feel like a glorious gazelle with the wind in my face. Could we do it again some time?” At least, that’s what I think they’re saying, though probably not.

Nonetheless, I feel like I’m making a difference, so I feel good. I don’t always get that opportunity. Plus, it’s such a simple thing.

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Gopher tortoise burrow, Photo: Kelly Dean

Why gopher tortoises are threatened

If they’re not in the road, it’s best I just observe the gopher tortoise from a distance, especially when I come across their eggs near the opening. They act kind of goofy when they feed and breed — with this interesting jutting neck action — so they can be quite entertaining.

They can live almost as long as human beings, but unfortunately, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and other animals love to eat their eggs, so generally less than 10 percent survive to be a year old. If one combines automobile collisions, habitat loss, a slow life-cycle and very few offspring, that’s not a great recipe for long-term survival in the wild.

Mi casa es su casa

Each gopher tortoise needs about 5 acres to roam and their long and deep burrows can end up as homes for over 300 different Florida species, so they are like the communal housing contractor of Florida critters — or maybe the Holiday Inn of the animal world.

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Gopher tortoise burrow, Photo: Kelly Dean

If I come upon one of their burrows, I don’t disturb it — because it makes sense — and the law will find me. In fact, developers are not allowed to build on burrowed land until the tortoises are accounted for and either temporarily relocated and returned, or permanently relocated. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issues permits and orchestrates these procedures.

They even have an app for Android and iOS so folks can help keep track of them.

So join me and make your day a good one and watch out for the gopher tortoises in the road. They will thank you — in their own hissy way.

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