Gopherus polyphemus – Gopher Tortoise

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Book Chapter

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The gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, is the only North American land tortoise found east of the Mississippi River, where it occurs in portions of six states in the southeastern coastal plain. The gopher tortoise is a medium-sized terrestrial turtle that constructs and inhabits a distinctive burrow. Adults grow to 38.7 cm (15 in) carapace length. Distinguishing external features include short elephantine hind limbs and shovel-like forelimbs covered with relatively thick scales. The gopher tortoise is most commonly found in upland habitats that are characterized by a deep, well-drained, sandy soil suitable for construction of their extensive burrows. The gopher tortoise digs its burrow in a relatively open site that provides sunlit areas for nesting and thermoregulation, and ample herbaceous ground vegetation for forage. Burrows of adult gopher tortoises average approximately 4.5 m in length and about 2 m in depth. A gopher tortoise may use several burrows during a year, and the number of burrows at a given site is almost always greater than the number of tortoises at that site. Sexual maturity is associated with size, not age, and individuals may become mature in 10 to 20 or more years, depending on location and habitat quality. Mating and nesting activities occur primarily from May through mid-June. Eggs are often laid just outside the burrow and hatchlings emerge from eggs between late August and October. Human activities pose the greatest threats to the survival of gopher tortoise populations. Loss of habitat to human activities can take three forms: reduction in area of suitable habitat (true displacement), degeneration of suitable habitat (abandonment of habitat), and increased fragmentation of habitat (increased isolation of populations). During the past decade or so, Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD) also has been identified as a potential threat to the survival of the gopher tortoise. The State of Florida currently lists the gopher tortoise as Threatened. We consider it endangered. We propose a three-part approach to ensure a healthy future for the gopher tortoise. First, outright purchase of land known to support populations of gopher tortoises by individuals or agencies willing to conserve the species. Second, education of private land owners and public land managers about the value of active management of habitats known to support tortoise populations. Third, reintroduction of the gopher tortoise to suitable habitats on protected lands from which it has been extirpated or lands that have been restored to suitable habitat.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Gopherus polyphemus – Gopher Tortoise, in P. Meylan (Ed.), Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles, Chelonian Research Foundation, p. 350-375