Shell-ebrating the Gopher Tortoise

One of the things I most appreciate about being out in nature is that I never know what to expect. Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that catches my eye – the iridescent green metallic sweat bee pollinating Florida’s native redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana) or a tiny caterpillar that has rolled itself inside the leaf of its host plant. But sometimes, it’s something a little larger that has the power to captivate me and prompts a spat of research frenzy.

Such was the occasion this past weekend. I was out with a group of butterfliers doing something we’ve done every July for years: we count butterflies as a way to measure the health of the environment. We were at our first stop and about halfway through our survey route at the Violet Cury Nature Preserve in Lutz. Suddenly, as we rounded a bend, we all saw her: a gopher tortoise batting her eyes very slowly at us.

I’m not sure whether she was foraging, or simply out for a stroll. But, as we let her pass, group members started parrying each other with questions: What do gopher tortoises eat? Why are they keystone species? How long do they live? The questions kept flowing until we saw our next butterfly (which happened to be a Viceroy) and then suddenly, we were back on point looking for things flying in the air rather than walking on the ground.

But, that chance encounter sparked a drive to answer those questions, if, for no other reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. Here are the answers I found:

Gopher tortoises are herbivores that eat grasses, gopher apple (Licania michauxii) and plants in the bean family. They are considered a keystone species because so many others depend on them: the burrows they dig protect and shelter some 350 other species including the Federally Threatened eastern indigo snake and the imperiled gopher frog. Gopher tortoises can live 40 to 60 years in the wild and over 90 years in captivity. 

Unfortunately, like so many other of our native species, the gopher tortoise is under pressure due to the rapidly disappearing destruction, fragmentation and degradation of its habitat. As a result, gopher tortoises are imperiled and designated as a state-threatened species in Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has consequently implemented a management plan to guide the recovery of the gopher tortoise. According to the Gopher Tortoise Council, habitat conservation is critical if we are to save this species.

While not all of us have property suitable for tortoise habitat, we can still help save this species. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission requests that we record sightings of the gopher tortoise and upload photos here. So give it a shot – a snapshot that is – the next time you see one. With our help, FWC can better protect these handsome reptiles.