Turtle or tortoise? If you want to get technical, all tortoises are turtles, meaning they belong to the order Testudines. However, not all turtles are tortoises. Tortoises are land animals, and they can’t swim. Though there are land turtles that are not tortoises, like wood turtles and box turtles. Are you confused yet? An easy way to tell the difference is to look at their feet. Tortoise feet look a bit like elephant feet, which is interesting because they’re called “elephantine.” That just means they’re columnar and not webbed like turtles’ back feet are. Turtles’ front feet are like flippers. Tortoises’ are not.
Another way to tell the difference is by checking out what they eat. Tortoises are herbivores, whereas turtles are omnivores. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about why gopher tortoises are so awesome! They’re considered a keystone species. That means that their existence helps other life exist. Their amazing burrows can be up to forty feet long and ten feet deep. There up to 350 other species that will benefit from a gopher tortoise burrow. Some of the critters that will share their burrows are indigo snakes, pine snakes, burrowing owls, skunks, rabbits, armadillos, quail, opossums, foxes, mice, and a whole lot of insects, frogs, and toads.
During prescribed burns (which are necessary to maintain biodiversity), many animals will take cover in gopher tortoise burrows until the fire is finished.
In the wild, gopher tortoises can live up to eighty years. Males reach adulthood at about 9-12 years. Females reach adulthood at about 10-21 years of age, and they lay 5-9 eggs per year, during early summer. Their eggs look like ping pong balls. Baby gopher tortoises are adorable! They’re tiny and their coloring is much brighter than adults.
Gopher tortoises are a protected species. Like so many other animals, their main threat is habitat loss and fragmentation (where their habitat is broken up by roads and other obstacles). It’s illegal to handle these tortoises without proper permitting. The only time it’s okay and legal to touch one is when you’re moving them to safety off of a road. Always move them in the direction they were headed, otherwise they’ll walk right back into the road.
For much more information, and to find out ways you can help protect these amazing creatures, check out FWC’s website at https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/gopher-tortoise/.