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Highlighting a Keystone Species: The Gopher Tortoise

The gopher tortoise is not only a keystone species, but also an endemic species, making it special and important to the overall function of the ecosystems where it is found. In this episode, we will explore the life of the gopher tortoise including some basic identification information, population status, biology, and things you can to do help populations in Florida.

 

  • Show Notes

    Learn more:

    • Watch our webinar - https://youtu.be/1QhwxOb0Cb4 
    • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission - Gopher Tortoise Program - https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/gopher-tortoise/ 
    • The Gopher Tortoise Council - https://gophertortoisecouncil.org/gopher-tortoise 

    How You Can Help:

    • Add native forage species to your yard - https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/gopher-tortoise/help/plant-guide/ 
    • Find out what to do if you find a gopher tortoise near you (injured, healthy, or deceased) - https://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/gopher-tortoise/tortoise-sightings/ 
    • Help get them out of the road - Place them on the side of the road in the direction they were heading (Note: Do not place them in water) 

    Sources for this Episode:

    • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission - Gopher Tortoise Education - https://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/gopher-tortoise/ 
    • Fire Effects Information System - Species: Gopherus polyphemus - www.fs.usda.gov/database/feis/animals/reptile/gopo/all.html 

    If you enjoyed this episode, please consider sharing it with a friend who might enjoy learning about Florida's natural areas and the wild things that live here!

Episode Transcript:

SHANNON:
On today's episode, Lara and I will be talking all about Florida's state listed gopher tortoise. This keystone species is so important to our ecosystems, and we can't wait to tell you all about them.

LARA:
Welcome to “Naturally Florida,” a podcast about Florida's natural areas and the wild things that live here. I'm Lara Milligan.

SHANNON:
And I'm Shannon Carnevale.

LARA:
This podcast is brought to you by UF IFAS Extension in Polk and Pinellas counties.

Shannon, we have been getting to see so many baby gopher tortoises at the Preserve lately. And oh my gosh, they're so cute.

SHANNON:
It's not even fair. I just love them. They're so adorable and tiny, and they make the cutest little football-shaped tiny burrows.

LARA:
Oh, my gosh. Their burrows, I know. Everything about them! (LAUGHTER) Okay, anyway, we will focus. So what we are going to talk about today is all about the gopher tortoise that we have here in Florida. They actually expand outside of Florida, too, which we'll touch on. But first, let's kind of clarify turtle versus tortoise, because let's just get that out of the way.

SHANNON:
Yeah.

LARA:
Shannon and I made a similar comparison in our frog episode where toads…

SHANNON:
All toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads. I'm sure that's what you meant to say.

LARA:
Mm hmm. Yep, that's exactly where I was going. (LAUGHTER) So same with tortoise. Similar with tortoises. Tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. Does that make sense?

SHANNON:
It did. So what differentiates a tortoise?

LARA:
Typically, it's that they're more terrestrial. Of course, they will be visiting bodies of water. They have these kind of stumpy hind feet, and they're just designed for being on land much more so than water. They have more claws instead of that like webbed feet for swimming in the water.

SHANNON:
Yeah, they don't swim very well. So please don't throw your gopher tortoises into the water, especially if you find them on a coastal dune. They don't belong in the ocean. Leave them on the dunes.

LARA:
Yeah. And it is pretty weird, in my opinion, to see a gopher tortoise on a dune. But that is one of the many habitats that they occupy.

SHANNON:
Yeah.

LARA:
So specifically, when we're talking about the gopher tortoise—just so we're all on the same page—it’s the only tortoise species that we have that's east of the Mississippi. But specifically what they look like…So, of course, they can vary based on their age. But they can get up to like 15—I feel like I've seen bigger than 15 inches—but that's like, you know, on average probably 11 inches.

They have the stumpy hind feet. Their forelimbs are these like armored. They have very rough scales that are designed for digging out and excavating their burrows. Their shells are oval shaped, but they can vary in color. I've seen like super tan ones to gray to brown. And then when they're juveniles, the babies, they look totally different. They're like a yellowy brown.

Yeah, they look very different in color when they're young and super cute. I think it helps with camouflage. I haven't seen anything to, like, document that, but I feel like it's similar to the spotting on fawns and deer, just kind of helps them blend in a little bit more.

SHANNON:
Yeah, I agree. When you see…I mean the little ones, they're just a lot harder to see than the big ones. I feel like the yellow helps them blend in more with vegetation ‘cause they can kind of get under the ground-cover like the grasses and stuff. And the yellow I feel like helps them blend in with that. And they just look—I mean, I don't know how else to put that—they just look a little softer. (LAUGHTER) The adults look so rugged and like they are going to beat up that dirt and they are going to make a burrow. And those little ones, it's like they're not completely done cooking yet. They're just soft and cute.

LARA:
And they're not. And yeah, I think the latest statistic I saw is one out of every ten clutches that a female lays will actually be successful in raising one adult to make it to maturity. So…

SHANNON:
Oh, wow. Well, let's move on to their population status maybe then.

LARA:
Yes. So the gopher tortoise has actually been protected for a really long time in terms of wildlife management going back to 1972. That's when they were first listed as threatened. And then we won't get into too many details, but they shifted back to—or up to, I guess you could say—a species of special concern.

And then they were reassessed and went back to being listed as threatened, which is where they currently stand now, and that’s at the state level.

SHANNON:
Right. Right. And at the federal level, the other part of their population in the other states that we kind of briefly will touch on, those are actually listed at the federal level as threatened. Is that right?

LARA:
Yes, in certain parts. And we can include a link that shows you guys a really cool map of their range and where they're found and kind of their different statuses. So the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which really determines the status of these species in terms of like “threatened,” “endangered,” “species of special concern” at the state level were designated as “threatened.”

That kind of went in line with this first ever management plan for the gopher tortoise. And that plan—it was revised in 2012—goes through this year, through 2022. And there's four main goals of this plan, which I'll just briefly touch on those. We won't go in depth. 

Minimize overall net loss of the gopher tortoise. So really keeping populations stable seems like a good goal.

SHANNON:
Yeah.

LARA:
Increase in improved gopher tortoise habitat. Habitat loss is one of the main reasons that we are in the current situation that we are in. So anything we can do to improve that is great. 

Enhancing and restoring gopher tortoise populations. And that's specifically looking at areas where they know historically gopher tortoises used to exist, and maybe their populations are extirpated in that area or just the populations are really low. So they're trying to build those back up. 

And—we’ll talk about this more in depth—but maintain the gopher tortoise’s function as a keystone species.

SHANNON:
Which for our listeners, if you don't know what a keystone species is, it's a species which others species in the ecosystem largely depend on. So if you think about architecture, which I know everyone thinks about architecture all the time…

LARA:
(LAUGHTER) Right.

SHANNON:
But if you think about the arches that you probably learned about in elementary school, that top brick, the one that holds all the other bricks together, that's known as your “keystone.” Your keystone.

And so when we're talking about keystone species, it's the same idea. If you were to remove that species from the ecosystem, the ecosystem around it might collapse or drastically change. And we know that the gopher tortoise is a keystone species because so many species depend on them, right, Lara?

LARA:
Yeah. So the number that's always thrown around is there's over 350 species that rely on the gopher tortoise. And by that we mean mostly the burrow. Now, the majority of those are invertebrate species, but 60 of those are vertebrates that have been documented to utilize the gopher tortoise burrow. So that's like an insane amount of species that are dependent on one other species.

SHANNON:
Oh yeah. And if you think about it, you know…if you haven't seen what these “commensals,” as you call them—or the other vertebrates who are using the burrows, you haven't seen what that looks like—it sounds a little crazy. Like, why would I want 350 other species and potentially 60 larger species in my house? They're not all in the same part of the burrow, and they’re not all in the same burrow at the same time.

LARA:
Right. (LAUGHTER) Good point.

SHANNON: 
It could be a refuge during a wildfire or during drought or something like that. But it's also gopher tortoises dig many burrows. And so some of these species rely on abandoned burrows as well.

LARA:
Yeah. And Shannon mentioned this idea of “commensals,” which just so we're all on the same page with that, just means that those other species that are utilizing the burrow aren't necessarily causing any type of harm to the gopher tortoise. It's just like the gopher tortoise goes about its business. But the animals that live in the burrow get to benefit from the burrow with no harm to the tortoise. So yeah, it's a win for everyone in the burrow and no real love lost for the gopher tortoise.

SHANNON:
It's like that best kind of roommate you can have, the one that, like, exists there and you both mutually benefit from, but like you don't actually have to talk to.

LARA:
Yeah. (LAUGHTER) And some of them like clean up the gopher tortoise scat inside. So I mean that's like I would say that's like mutualistic right there.

SHANNON:
Yeah. It's a…

LARA:
It’s a win win.

SHANNON:
I agree.

LARA:
Okay. And now I just want to back up again because Shannon and I have mentioned we're going to talk about the range and kind of where the gopher tortoises are found throughout the United States. So they are considered “endemic” to the United States. I know we're throwing like some big words out to you today, which just means that they are native and restricted to a certain place.

So they are literally only found in this particular area. And so for us, it's from southeastern South Carolina to a small eastern portion of Louisiana. So Shannon kind of alluded to that before. But there are more gopher tortoises in Florida than anywhere else in their range, and they are found in all 67 counties in the state. So that's pretty cool. It's a pretty special species to have.

SHANNON:
It is. I love gopher tortoises. I feel like I've been learning about them since elementary school because they are so special in Florida. And I’m just, I’m super excited that we're here to talk about them today.

LARA:
Yes. And we've mentioned a couple of different places where you can find gopher tortoises, but the main key ingredient is that they really prefer sandy areas and areas where there's light tree cover because with kind of a more open canopy, it allows for a lot of low-growing vegetation which the gopher tortoises need to eat. In Florida in terms of the ecosystems where we might find them, we often think of longleaf pine ecosystems, sandhills, scrubs, and then we mentioned coastal dunes as well.

The issue is that these are nice, high dry areas where we love to dedicate land to development. So that's again in part why they are listed as a threatened species, because we have largely built up the areas where and the habitats where they would historically have been found.

SHANNON:
Yeah, because they're not, you know, they're not aquatic turtles. They're not a wetland species.

LARA:
Not a wetland species. (LAUGHTER) Okay. And we mentioned that they prefer not super dense tree cover to allow that low-growing vegetation, and that's because they are herbivores. So they are eating plants and all sorts of plants. There was a study that said over 1100 species of plants they have been documented to consume. Like that's insane!

SHANNON:
Yeah. And something that I always love about our native species is we're still learning so much about them. There are a lot of species that we're still learning that they like too. And as we restore some of these areas, we learn more and more about them. For instance, I remember there was one study that we read when we were still in school, Lara. I don't know if you guys read the same one, but it was talking about how gopher tortoises were eating the blossoms of saw palmetto. And what the researchers found is they're not really sure if they were going after the blossoms or if they were going after the pollinators that were in the blossoms for an added protein source.

LARA:
Interesting. I don't remember that.

SHANNON:
Oh, it has clearly stuck in my mind. So I thought it was the coolest study. And that's how little we know about some of our native species. But the gopher tortoise, because of those changes in status at the state level, we have been doing a lot of research on them and they're just fascinating critters.
LARA:
Yes. Yes, they are. And with the research that's been done, which is where we can throw some of these cool statistics at you. It's been documented that they will forage, find food, within 160 feet of their burrow typically. So they're not really going venturing super far from their burrow, though they will for other reasons. But in terms of eating…
So if you see them feeding, you can think, oh, well, somewhere nearby there is a gopher tortoise burrow, which is pretty cool.

SHANNON:
Yeah, because 160 feet is not very far.

LARA:
No, it's not. But what is far is their burrows in terms of how long they could be and how deep they could be in the soil. So I've seen different studies in terms of the longest burrow that's been documented. But the longest one I've seen is 67 feet long, which is like insane, like this gopher tortoise excavated this with its own two little feet. It's crazy. 
On average, they're typically not that long. 15 feet is more what we typically see. 

And in terms of depth, this can vary as well. But six and a half feet is the average and that just depends on lots of things—the soil type, but also more critically important probably is where the water table is underground, especially here in Florida. Obviously, they don't want to dig and be underwater.

SHANNON:
So yeah, and so on our ridgey parts of the state like where I'm located, their burrows are likely going to be a little bit deeper so that they can get down to the water table. Now, parts of Polk County, the water table is only six or 12 inches below the soil. But in other parts of the county, the water table might be 40 feet down. And so the burrows are likely deeper here. That's just an assumption I'm making based on the ecosystem now.

LARA:
Yeah. And I've seen like up to ten feet deep, which again is, I mean, that's super deep for this one little tortoise to be excavating. And their burrows, they basically will make their burrows right up until like a little bit above that water table. And that creates this perfect little what we call a “microclimate”, where not only is the humidity relatively the same year round, but also the temperature inside the burrow. So it's a perfect little refuge for them and all the commensals that live in the burrow as well.

SHANNON:
It sounds like a great little architect.

LARA:
They're just the best!

SHANNON:
If we think back to the to how gopher tortoises are shaped, kind of that half-dome shape, almost football-shaped. That's exactly what their burrow opening looks like as well. And so if you are out hiking in an area that's got a perfect gopher tortoise habitat, or if you've seen a gopher tortoise, what you'll want to be looking for for that burrow is a half moon-shaped burrow. The burrow is exactly the same shape as the tortoise itself. And so that's a really great way to estimate, you know, the size of the tortoise you're looking at. 

We mentioned at the beginning of the episode, baby tortoises have tiny, adorable little half moon-shaped burrows. And the adults, they're the exact same shape. They're just bigger. They do, if it's a real sandy area, they have something called an “apron” out front, which is where they have dumped all that sand from the burrow. And it'll be completely vegetation-free. They maintain this like a little backyard, and there will just be a pile of sand.

LARA:
Mm hmm. Yes. It's a very distinct area of the burrow, which Shannon mentioned is called the “apron.”

SHANNON:
And as soon as you learn how to identify a gopher tortoise burrow, you will never mistake it for anything else ever again. And so if you ever find one of these in the backyard of a house you're looking to purchase or on a piece of property you might buy, you can look at it immediately and say, “Oh, there are gopher tortoises here,” which for some people real benefit. For other people, not so great.

LARA:
Yeah. And the apron area is where, can be where the females lay their eggs, and they can do some basking out there to warm up. So I just want to briefly kind of switch gears and we'll talk a little bit about their biology because it's pretty interesting. And as I mentioned, I've been seeing lots of babies. So they will emerge between August and November, so keep your eyes out for baby gopher tortoises.

The crazy thing, though, is they're not sexually mature until, like, 9 to 21 years of age. So, and I mentioned already how hard it is to even reach that point. So, then in terms of their breeding, it's anywhere from March to October. So that's a pretty big window there. And then typically nesting will occur like mid-May to mid-June. And then I already mentioned they'll emerge between August and November. And they're only laying one clutch of eggs every year. So it's like they got one chance here of doing it successfully.

SHANNON:
And so, Lara mentioned that the female gopher tortoise will often lay her eggs in that apron. So it's really important if you come across one, regardless of the time of year, do not stand on the apron. Don't walk on that apron because there aren't that many eggs in a gopher tortoise nest.
LARA:
Yeah. They only lay between five and nine in a clutch, and they're only doing that, again, once a year. So on average it's six eggs, it's not like I feel like when people think about turtles and eggs, they're often thinking of sea turtles.  And maybe I'm biased because I'm on the coast, but it's like they're dumping this mass of eggs in there, and that is not the case.

SHANNON:
You're not biased. That's a Florida thing. People just think of sea turtles and think, “Oh, that must be how all turtles work,” which is fine, there's nothing wrong with that. But they can lay, you know, 50 or more eggs.

LARA:
Yeah, yeah, it's crazy. So that's, again, not the case with the gopher tortoise. So we definitely want to do anything and everything we can to help protect them from juveniles to adults. And it is really hard to document like how long the gopher tortoises live, but it's said between 40 to 60 years in the wild. And, you know, they're not reaching maturity till maybe as late as 21 years and then they only have a clutch every year. So it's like, again, we need to do what we can to protect the ones that we have.

SHANNON:
So a question I get a lot from residents that have gopher tortoise burrows in their backyard is “Is there anything that we should be doing to protect these burrows from natural predators?”

LARA:
Unfortunately, there's not a ton that we can do. You know, Shannon and I often have to just explain the circle of life to people. But the predators they’re just taking advantage. It's just another food source for them, whether it's raccoons, foxes, possums, skunks. Shannon mentioned even domestic cats and dogs can get into the nest. So I actually witnessed a crow eating one, and it was like the worst day of my life. But again, it's the circle of life. I just took a deep breath.

SHANNON:
It is.

LARA:
We just kind of have to understand and accept that. But yeah, there's not really a ton that we can do other than just enjoy and appreciate the fact that you even have them in your yard.

SHANNON:
Right. But it is good to keep your domestic pets away ‘cause that's not really part of the circle of life. That’s us.

LARA:
Thank you. That it is. (LAUGHTER) Correct.

SHANNON:
Same thing for lawn mowers, too, though. If you know that you've got a gopher tortoise burrow and potentially a nest, just keep the heavy machinery off of where the top of the burrow might be. Don't want to have any cave-ins. But other than that… Yeah, I agree. Natural predators—it’s a natural food source. And I think that's a good way to transition to our calls to action.

So, Lara, what would be your number one call to action for gopher tortoises that people might see?

LARA:
I feel like probably the number one thing, at least I get asked when people do see one is if they are in the road like what do I do? Can I touch them? Can I pick them up? So yes, you can get them out of the road. You must put them in the direction that they were already heading.

And obviously your safety is number one. So assess the scene before you're going to jump out in the middle of the road. But we want to not put them in our car. And please, again, do not put them in a body of water. They do not swim.

SHANNON:
Yes to all of that.  (LAUGHTER)

LARA:
And if you guys do have gopher tortoises in your yard, (A)I’m super jealous, but (B) there are some things that you can do to enhance the habitat and especially the forage for them. So through the Florida Fish and Wildlife (and we can include this link in the show notes), they have lists of plants specific to your—depending where you are in the state—that you could plant. Well, see if you can find first and then plant in your yard just to provide them with some more different species and variety for them to eat.

SHANNON:
Yeah, I would say that's my number one call to action is if you have them in your yard, support that biodiversity, add some native forage. Plus you're just creating a buffet that you get to watch them eat. And it's so cool.

LARA:
It's so cool.

SHANNON:
But if you don't have them in your backyard, I guarantee you there is either an environmental lands program in your county or a park in your area that has gopher tortoises, that you could also be recommending species for them to plant. Or just support them by… just call them, let them know you think what they're doing is cool and that you think it's important because those kinds of support from the general public are really, really critical to supporting things like biodiversity enhancements and native plant restoration.

LARA:
Yeah. And that goes along with supporting prescribed burning too because
Shannon and I mentioned they like that open habitat with the not a ton of tree cover. And anything we can do to support prescribed burning too will enhance the habitat where gopher tortoises are found.

SHANNON:
Absolutely. And I would say the next most common phone call I get is, “Oh, my gosh, I came across a gopher tortoise that was hurt or there's a dead one on the side of the road. Do I need to report this anywhere to there?” So Lara - What should someone do if they come across a dead or injured gopher tortoise?

LARA:
So depending on which it is, there's different actions. So if it's an injured one, you want to go to the Florida Fish and Wildlife website and they have a list of wildlife rehabilitators. And they will list them by various different ways—by county and then you can also look specifically for which species that they work with. So just call your local or your regional Florida Fish and Wildlife Office and they can direct you to a resource there where you can find the help that you need.

If you come across one that's dead, there is actually research that the Florida Fish and Wildlife is doing to, again, assess—it goes back to that management plan to assess the net loss of gopher tortoises and their overall populations. It's really hard to document without our help. So as sad as it is, we encourage you to report that through the Florida Fish and Wildlife website. And you can, again, just do a search online for reporting dead gopher tortoises—sad as that sounds—on the Florida Fish and Wildlife website and document it there. 

Now, on the positive side, if you want to report a happy, living gopher tortoise, the Florida Fish and Wildlife also wants to know about that too. So you can do that as well on their website. They also have a smartphone application that you can download on your phone. It's super user-friendly and it has a really cool interactive map and all the things. So anything you guys can do if you're out and about to document is helpful overall.

SHANNON:
I had no idea there is a smartphone app for happy gopher tortoises, and I am absolutely going to download that as soon as we're done recording today.

LARA:
Yeah, I kind of nerded out on that for a while. I was like, “Oh, I should probably get back to work. But wait, there's another burrow!”

SHANNON:
I would argue that’s part of your job. But anyway, anyway…

LARA:
It is. (LAUGHTER) That’s how I justified it.

SHANNON:
Anyway, moving on. So just one more thing we wanted to cover before we wrap up this episode, and that is the Florida Fish and Wildlife “Wildlife Alert Hotline.” And this is a phone number that you can call or text if you're seeing any behavior around Florida's wildlife, like the gopher tortoise, that you think might be illegal, inappropriate, dangerous or abusive.

And this phone number will connect you right to an FWC law enforcement officer. And you can talk to them about your concern and move on from there. But the phone number—get ready—is 888-404-3922. And we will put that in the show notes. You can also text Tip@MyFWC.com. And depending on your cell phone provider, you can also use the shortcut to call, which is#FWC or *FWC.

LARA:
Lots of options there. If you're driving, don't write that down. (LAUGHTER) Relisten to it later or check out our show notes. But yes, so lots of things that you guys can do to help the gopher tortoise. We hope that you enjoyed today's episode and we will catch you next time.

SHANNON:
Thanks for listening to “Naturally Florida,” a podcast about Florida's natural areas and the wild things that live here. Stay updated on new episodes by subscribing on your favorite podcast platform. If you enjoyed today's episode, consider sharing it with a friend. “Naturally Florida” is produced by your hosts Shannon Carnevale

LARA:
and Lara Milligan.

SHANNON:
If you have questions or suggestions, submit them online at naturallyfloridapodcast.com. This podcast is brought to you by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, an equal opportunity institution. Thank you for listening.

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