Sixty million years ago, there were 23 species of its kind. Due to predators, poaching and development, the numbers have dwindled to a present day total of four species.
The gopher tortoise is in trouble. If the trend continues, this slow -moving, gentle creature that creates homes for other animals by burrowing holes in the ground, may be doomed to extinction.
"Right now, the state of Florida is doing a study on whether to keep them on the threatened list or move them to the endangered list for animals", said Charlie Pedersen, a biologist with the Florida Forest Service since 1997, then called the Division of Forestry.
"People don't realize the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law," he said. "Property owners or builders must obtain the proper permits from the FWC (Florida Wildlife Commission) before building on vacant land which has known tortoises on it. Only then can relocation experts capture and relocate the tortoises."
"The gopher tortoises are probably the most prehistoric looking, unlike land or aquatic turtles that roam throughout the state," said Pedersen.
Adding, "The tortoise lives in a hole which we call a burrow. That burrow in a 30-40 year span can serve as an apartment complex for up to 300-350 species of sandhill habitats."
The gopher tortoise is a herbivorous brown or tan medium-sized turtle with a wide, muscular head covered with scales and flattened forelimbs that look like shovels. Those forelimbs can dig a burrow 15-30 feet in length and up to 6 feet deep. In many cases, an indigo snake, armadillo, and several spiders will take refuge in the burrow with the tortoise. Numerous animals seek shelter from predators, adverse weather conditions and even fire. Some of these creatures would not exist if not for the burrow. It has been noted that during a fire, sometimes 30 species of animals run or crawl to the burrow. The last one entering is the tortoise, which then blocks the entry way. No one leaves until the tortoise departs; it is the burrow's safety monitor.
Tortoises are territorial. The female, sometimes in her 40 years plus, never ventures farther than three-quarters of a mile from her burrow. Research shows the male leaves more often and roams as far as two miles from his burrow.
Pedersen feels very strongly about the tortoises, stating "If dogs don't kill the tortoise, man either through building on vacant land or putting in new asphalt roadways, or poaching, will."
He cautioned, "What happens now matters in fifty years."
It's against the law to kill or harass gopher tortoises, their eggs or their burrows. If you suspect a wildlife law violation, report it to the FWC's hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922), 24 hours a day.
By Sharon G. Nichols, senior writer
Adult gopher tortoise roaming in Mount Dora.
This hatchling, now being rehabilitated, was rescued in Mount Dora near land on Clayton Street recently cleared for development.
Gopher tortoises are herbivores.
Adult gopher tortoise passing through Mount Dora yard this spring.