Gopher tortoise

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Gopher Tortoise

Gopherus polyphemus

Range/Geographical Distribution: The coastal plain from South Carolina to Louisiana.

Habitat: Sandy areas with ample sunlight and vegetation.  Historically found in the longleaf pine and wiregrass community but since this habitat is now rare, they can be found along roadsides and old fields. 

Description: A large terrestrial turtle with a brown or gray domed carapace.  The plastron is yellowish and the skin is dark gray.  The front limbs are flattened and shovel-like and the hind limbs are elephantine. 

Size: Adults can reach a carapace length of 15 inches.

Food: Grasses, legumes, and fruits.

Breeding: Mating occurs from April to June and nesting usually ends in July.  Females lay an average of six white eggs in a nest in a burrow mound.  After 97-106 days of incubation the hatchlings emerge.

Predators: Eggs and hatchlings are consumed by various mammals, birds, and snakes.

Conservation Status: Listed as Threatened in Georgia.  Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List

Interesting Facts: Gopher tortoises dig long, un-branched burrows, sometimes deeper than 30 feet, in sandy soil.  These burrows serve as a retreat from summer heat, protection from fire, and a place to hibernate.  One tortoise may build several burrows and multiple tortoises may occupy one burrow for short periods.  Many other species also use these burrows including the indigo snake.  Gopher tortoises help disperse soil nutrients through burrow excavation and they spread plant seeds through consumption and subsequent defecation.  All of these characteristics make the tortoise a key-stone species in the coastal plain. 

On the Coast: The gopher tortoise is the state reptile of Georgia.  Their burrows can be distinguished from other animals by the distinct half-moon shaped opening and the fan of excavated sand near the opening.  Tortoise burrows are also usually in sunny areas and may have tracks or scat around them.

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