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Gopher Tortoises in Louisiana

Louisiana has abundant wildlife, including reptiles such as snakes and turtles. All are welcome in Yvonne's backyard wildlife habitat.

Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

Besides the common box turtle, another land turtle, the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), inhabits our area in southeastern Louisiana. These reptiles are uncommon and are on the federally protected list in Louisiana, Mississippi and western Alabama. It is a species of conservation concern throughout its range.

The tunnels that the tortoises dig are very important to the ecosystem in which they live. Countless numbers of other species of animals take shelter in the tunnels during times of crisis.

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How to Identify a Gopher Tortoise

The gopher tortoise is a medium-sized land turtle with an unmarked, smooth dark brown to grayish-brown shell. Its rear limbs have an elephantine appearance and the front feet have wide, flattened nails. Both sexes have two wart-like glands on the underside of the chin.

Closeup of a tortoise turtle face.

Closeup of a tortoise turtle face.

Tortoise Habits and Habitat

In Louisiana, gopher tortoises are only found in the southeastern portion of the state, in the Florida Parishes. They tend to prefer areas with deep sandy soil, where it is easier to dig their burrows, but are sometimes found in areas with clay soil.

Traditionally they occupied the savannas of the longleaf pine forests that once spread across the southeastern part of the state. Now they are found in open areas such as right of ways, field edges and fencerows.

Gopher tortoises are the only southeastern turtle that digs its own burrows. Even hatchling tortoises are capable of digging their own burrow shortly after they leave the nest.

The burrows are quite long, averaging 15 feet and angling down 6 feet below the surface. The width of the burrow is about the same dimensions as the length of the tortoise because the tortoise has to be able to turn around in it.

Most of the gopher tortoise's life is spent underground in its burrow, though it will visit other turtles in their burrows. They are most active from May through September and during warm weather at other times of the year.

Diet

These tortoises are mostly vegetarian, although they have been observed, on occasion, feeding of carrion, feces and old bones.

Turtles of the Southeast

This is a well-written and illustrated book that all turtle lovers should add to their library. The photos and illustrations are excellent and the information is accurate and current.

The young tortoises can dig soon after hatching.

The young tortoises can dig soon after hatching.

Reproduction and Predators

Gopher tortoises have only one nest each year. Courtship occurs in the fall. Females lay a clutch of 3-9 ping-pong shaped eggs in a nest usually just outside or in the opening of the her tunnel in May to early July. They hatch in late August to early October.

Predators

There are many predators of the eggs, hatchlings and small juveniles including racoons, opossums, foxes and skunks. Large snakes including coachwhips and indigo snakes can take the young while their shells are still soft. Fire ants are also a problem for eggs and young.

Coyotes, bobcats, feral dogs and large raccoons sometimes prey upon adult tortoises.

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A gopher tortoise exits its burrow. Much time is spent underground.

A gopher tortoise exits its burrow. Much time is spent underground.

Conservation Issues of Gopher Tortoises

Gopher tortoise populations are on the decline and some individual populations are close to extinction.

In the past, many tortoises were killed for consumption. Additionally, their burrows were gassed to collect diamondback rattlesnakes that dwell in the burrows during winter and early spring. These influences have negatively impacted the repopulation of this long-lived, but low-reproducing species.

Gopher tortoises have also suffered from a respiratory disease.

As with the other land turtles in Louisiana, habitat destruction and fragmentation have reduced many populations.

For this species to make a comeback they must be protected and remaining habitats and individual populations must be intensively managed.

A tortoise enters a tunnel. The tunnels are extensive, forming an ecosystem that is used by many other species of reptiles.

A tortoise enters a tunnel. The tunnels are extensive, forming an ecosystem that is used by many other species of reptiles.

Gopher Tortoise - Endangered and Threatened Animals

Gopher Tortoise Tunnel Video (David Attenborough)

A video cam mounted on the back of a gopher tortoise allows you to crawl through a borough to view the other animals that use it as a haven.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Don't burrow in without leaving a comment.

Yvonne L B (author) from Covington, LA on June 15, 2015:

I thank you and all of turtledom thank wonderful people like you. :)

Wendy on June 14, 2015:

I aided an adult gopher turtle who wanted to cross a busy road today. He was covered with mud. I hope he learns to avoid busy roads in the future. I was pleased to see how patient the people who had to stop behind me were.

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on September 13, 2009:

Oh me! I would love to meet up with a Gopher Tortoise. This is so interesting and educational. Thank you!

Yvonne L B (author) from Covington, LA on September 13, 2009:

I never realized how important Gopher Tortoises were to the ecosystem. We must protect them.

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