Gopher Tortoises

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/.

Sharing the Trails with Alligators

If you hike near water in Florida, chances are pretty good you’re going to see an alligator at some point. Those of us who are on the trails a lot are used to it, but it can be scary if you haven’t had much experience sharing the trails with these reptiles. Something that’s important to remember is that a healthy, wild alligator will most likely want nothing to do with you; so the best course of action is to just ignore them and let them go on their way. Alligator attacks in Florida are extremely rare. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission there have only been twenty-four fatal alligator attacks in Florida since 1973. Statistically, you’re more likely to be killed by a cow than you are an alligator.

Alligators are ambush predators. That means they lay in wait, hiding beneath the surface of the water or near the water’s edge, then they quickly strike their prey. Never get closer than thirty feet from an alligator. Their striking distance is about fifteen feet, and they’re lightning fast when they want to catch their dinner!

The only safe way to get photos like this of an alligator is with a telephoto lens. You’ll often see videos of people getting dangerously close to alligators, hoping to get a memorable photo of one. This is definitely not advisable. While an alligator may seem docile and uninterested in you, they are wild and dangerous animals and deserve plenty of respect and distance.

A mama alligator with babies like this is the most dangerous kind of alligator, and you want to stay as far away as possible so she won’t feel the need to protect her adorable offspring.

So what do you do if you’re walking along and come upon an alligator in the middle of, or near the edge of the trail? If the alligator doesn’t seem to want to carry on and get itself back to the water, the best thing to do is just wait it out from a safe distance. Try walking heavily toward the alligator (but not too close!) and see if it will move off the trail. If it doesn’t, and you can’t pass safely, you’ll just have to turn around and leave it alone. Remember, this is his home. You’re just a guest.

Should you be afraid of alligators? It might help to remember that alligators have a very slow metabolism. That means they really don’t need to eat as often as you might think. In the wild, it’s common for them to only eat about once a week. The best way to avoid an alligator attack is to always assume there are alligators in any body of water in Florida. Most alligator attacks happen at the edge of bodies of water. Alligators are especially drawn to dogs, so never take your dogs where alligators may be present. They’re much more likely to turn and go away from full sized humans, but a smaller person or a dog could look like prey to them. Just be vigilant and respect their space, and you’ll be fine. Many alligator attacks are the result of alligators that have been fed by humans. These alligators learn to associate people with food, and that’s a death sentence for the alligator. A nuisance alligator will most likely be put down, and we don’t want to see that happen.

Alligators are an awesome part of life in Florida. We share our home here with about 1.25 million of them! The best thing we can do is be educated and learn to enjoy them, from a very safe distance.

Ochlockonee River State Park

A trip through Florida’s Big Bend area and into the panhandle is like a trip back in time.  Urban sprawl has yet to infect this remote area of the state.  Taking a drive across the 220 mile long Big Bend Scenic Byway will take you through miles of longleaf pine forests and along fabulously undeveloped white, sandy coastline.  I didn’t know before I went, but apparently a detailed brochure exists to help you navigate this incredible highway and really take in all it has to offer.  It can be found here: http://www.floridabigbendscenicbyway.org/sites/default/files/media/docs/Byway-Guide-20120319.pdf

A drive down the scenic byway is one of many things we did while we were in the area.  We visited several state parks within a couple of hours of Ochlockonee, but here we’ll focus on this one incredible state park.  I realized I was pronouncing it all wrong when a kind ranger gave me a tip to say it right.  He said it’s O-Clock-Knee.  Now you know.

Welcome to Ochlockonee!  Driving down route 319 near the tiny town of Sopchoppy, you’ll end up here at the park.  If you’re planning to camp here for awhile, it may be helpful to know that the nearest Walmart is about forty minutes away in Crawfordville.  The nearest store is a Dollar General, about fifteen minutes away.  There really is nothing around here!

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