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Gopher Tortoise

Gopher Tortoise

Gopherus polyphemus

Status Threatened
Listed July 7, 1987
Family Testudinidae
Description Tortoise with a dome-shaped dark-brown to grayish black upper half of the carapace.
Habitat Sandhills.
Food Foliage of grasses and other herbaceous plants, flowers, fruits, mushrooms.
Reproduction Mate in April to early June; clutch of five to seven eggs.
Threats Conversion of natural areas into lands intensively used for agricultural, urbanized, residential, tourism-related, or industrial purposes; exclusion of wildfires; commercial pet trade; vehicles on roads running through its habitat; gasoline used to round up snakes.
Range Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi

Description

The gopher tortoise is a rare reptile of the southeastern United States. The length of its carapace (or shell) is up to about 15 in (38 cm), with males being somewhat larger than females. The upper half of the carapace is dome-shaped and colored dark-brown to grayish black. The lower carapace is yellowish.

Behavior

Gopher tortoises are vegetarians, mostly eating foliage of grasses and other herbaceous plants, as well as flowers, fruits, and mushrooms. They dig tunnels in sandy soils, up to about 20-33 ft (6-10 m) long, most of which is horizontal. These burrows are also used as critical microhabitat by numerous other species, including at least 301 invertebrates and 57 vertebrates. Each individual tortoise maintains at least three such burrows, which are used for resting at night and during cold or extremely hot and dry periods. Mating occurs from April to early June, and a clutch of five to seven eggs is laid in a nest dug into the ground. The eggs and hatchlings are extremely vulnerable to predation, mostly by mammals. Gopher tortoises become sexually mature at an age of 16-21 years, and can live for 40-60 years. Overall, their reproductive capacity is quite low, making their populations vulnerable to rapid depletion.

Habitat

The natural habitat of the gopher tortoise is dry, well-drained, sandy, grassy meadows and scrubby vegetation, often with scattered oaks (Quercus spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.), especially long-leafed pine (P. palustris ). Gopher tortoises require generally open conditions in their habitat, but with some shade. Its predominant habitat type is often referred to as sandhills.

Distribution

The gopher tortoise is found in the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. It is now extirpated (or locally extinct) from much of its original range and where it still occurs, its local populations are mostly small, isolated, and declining.

Threats

The gopher tortoise was historically a common species in appropriate habitats in the southeastern United States. The precipitous decline of the gopher tortoise has been caused by a number of factors, all related to human activities. The extensive loss of habitat has been most important and is largely due to the conversion of natural areas into lands intensively used for agricultural, urbanized, residential, tourism-related, or industrial purposes, including the development of forestry plantations. In addition, much of its habitat has been degraded by the exclusion of wildfires, which are needed to maintain the relatively open conditions needed by the rare tortoise. The gopher tortoise was also once commonly harvested as a source of wild meat and it is still excessively collected for the commercial pet trade. It is also vulnerable to being run over by vehicles on roads running through its habitat. During rattlesnake roundups, collectors may kill gopher tortoises by pouring gasoline into their burrows to drive out the cohabiting snakes.

Conservation and Recovery

Because of its increasing rarity, the gopher tortoise has been designated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) as a vulnerable species. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated all populations west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi to be threatened. The gopher tortoise is protected from hunting or collecting in Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina, but not in other states within its range. Its international trade is governed by an Appendix II listing under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This means that trade is only allowed if an export permit has been acquired from the U.S. government, while also requiring that the trade is reported to CITES for monitoring. In some parts of its range, the habitat of the gopher tortoise is being maintained through forestry practices, such as prescribed burning, that result in a relatively open tree canopy dominated by pines. Some of the habitat of the gopher tortoise occurs in protected areas, or on other kinds of government owned land, but most is privately held and is vulnerable to degradation by disturbance or conversion. Overall, the most critical needs for conservation of the gopher tortoise are to strictly protect its small populations from exploitation by collectors and hunters, and to preserve larger areas of its habitat in parks and ecological reserves. Its local and overall populations must also be monitored to determine whether they are becoming endangered and, if they are, corrective measures implemented.

Contact

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Regional Office, Division of Endangered Species
1875 Century Blvd., Suite 200
Atlanta, Georgia 30345
http://southeast.fws.gov/

Reference

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1990. "Gopher Tortoise Recovery Plan." U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jackson, Mississippi. 28pp.

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