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Why all the concern about Gopher Tortoises?

Here are some questions often asked by landowners, developers, real estate agents, homeowner associations, and others directly affected by the presence of gopher tortoises.

Q: What is a gopher tortoise?

A: Gopher tortoises (gopherus polyphemus) are a threatened and legally protected species, which digs a burrow in sandy soils.  These tortoises live on land, not in water.  Click here for a much more detailed description of this herbivorous reptile.  To better understand why the gopher tortoise warrants our protection, click here.

 

Q: Are gopher tortoises an endangered species?

A: Gopher tortoises have received protected status (click here for details).  As such, the gopher tortoise may not be handled without a permit.  Any tortoise problems or violations can be referred to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, or FWCC, for resolution.

 

Q. Why are gopher tortoises and tortoise burrows a concern for land owners, developers, land managers or anyone changing land use?

A:  The presence of keystone protected species like the gopher tortoise places certain requirements on anyone considering land use change.

In addition to providing a home to the tortoise, the burrows provide a shelter for numerous other vertebrate and invertebrate animals.  You may not see much movement of animals on the surface - but underground in the gopher tortoise burrows numerous creatures go about their daily activities.  Some burrow associates live most or all of their lives in the burrows.

Burrows are particularly important during periods of cold, heat or drought.  They are a refuge for over 360 animal species.  Without these burrows, many animals, including gopher tortoises would die.  The presence of this burrow is vital to the health of the uplands ecosystem including some rare or endangered species.  If gopher tortoises disappear, what will happen to these animals? Will the gopher frog, cotton mouse, gopher cricket, indigo snake, burrowing owl, scarab beetle and other animals disappear along with the tortoise? Many researchers fear that if this keystone species becomes extinct, many other species will soon follow.

See Commensals for details on species, which live in gopher tortoise burrows.

 

Q: How many tortoises are in a burrow?

A: Tortoises are solitary animals.   Each tortoise will dig and use several burrows within its home range and tortoises may even alternate between burrows dug by other tortoises, but not more than one in a single burrow at a time.  Male tortoises in FL have been witnessed using over 35 burrows.  Gopher tortoises are quite territorial and aside from mating season, tortoises exhibit minimal interaction with one another, and are actually stressed by the presence of neighboring tortoises.  The only time you might find multiple tortoises in a single burrow would be in the case of newly emerged hatchlings, or possibly in the case of fire or circumstantial threats which have forced one tortoise to seek shelter in a burrow which happens to be already occupied.  Even fresh hatchlings begin digging new burrows of their own within several days.  For more detailed information on burrows, click here.

 

Q: There's A Tortoise on my Property! What do I do?

A: Once humans discover tortoises, they typically want to either protect or remove the tortoise. Gopher tortoises are a federally protected species. Current Florida state regulations clearly indicate that it is illegal to handle or disturb gopher tortoises or to bother their burrows.

1)      If your goal is to remove the tortoise(s) away from areas where it may not be wanted, the FWC must issue a relocation permit to have it moved, often in conjunction with a licensed relocation service.  To assist you in this process, we provide a simplified step-by-step instruction here.

2)      If your goal is to coexist with and be more accommodating to the tortoise(s) on your property, we are currently working on a management module to assist you.  For now, here are a few tips:  The burrow(s) must be protected from being collapsed, and care needs to be taken that people or vehicles do not fall into or collapse the burrow.  For tortoises in your yard, providing additional food usually is not necessary and is not recommended.  It is usually done because people like to watch the tortoise feeding.  It is best, however, to leave the tortoise to feed on its own.  Gopher tortoises exhibit very complex foraging behavior carefully selecting certain foods from over 280 species according to subtle internal cues.  Unnaturally providing attractive foods but not necessarily the ones the tortoise needs could give it a full belly that makes it lazy and keeps it from going out to forage properly, perhaps missing the nutrients required for optimal health.  Nonetheless if you would like to provide food, there are some simple rules, which should be followed.  Be sure to review the threats to tortoises, to better protect them.  Roadways, dogs, children, chemicals, and pesticides are among those potentially hazardous to the tortoise(s) in your yard if care is not taken.

 

Q: I saw one of your signs and it appears that land is being developed without first removing the tortoises. What can I do to help?

A: You can report possible violations as follows:

1)      If you are aware of gopher tortoises that are likely to be in danger of site development in the near future, you can complete our online tortoise alert submission form.  Click here to do so.

2)      If gopher tortoises or their burrows are in immediate and eminent danger of being destroyed you can call the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) and report a violation in progress.  The FWCC Report A Wildlife Violation Hotline is answered 24 hours a day @ 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).

3)      Documenting any contact or conversations, times, dates, photographs, video and GPS locations have proven extremely helpful to law enforcement officers.

4)      If you choose to notify a heavy equipment operator of the presence of gopher tortoises be careful not to place yourself in any danger!

 

Q: I want to help preserve the natural environment in my community.  How can I help?

A: One of the best ways is to become more educated and to educate our children about our environment, to value it, and to protect it.  This website is committed to taking part in this process and offers a children's learning center and an adult education section.  However, the focus in these pages is almost exclusively on the gopher tortoise, and there is more to protecting the environment than simply knowing about it.  We therefore offer the following suggestions:

1)      Public television (PBS) and the Science Channel are mainstream sources of information.  There is also an abundance of environmental resource groups online such as Envirolink, which can be beneficial.

2)      For a more active role consider joining and becoming active in an organization such as the Sierra Club or Greenpeace.  These organizations are well established and focus largely on environmental protection.  Whereas Greenpeace tends to focus more so on international issues, the Sierra Club offers a wide range of outdoor activities and social events across the US.

3)      Remember that conservation of land is not enough, because in order for land to truly be conserved, it must be properly managed.  Learn about the beneficial effects of fire and other management tools that can keep the landscape in a healthy state for our native plants and wildlife.

4)      Be an informed, educated voter.  Support city, county, and state officials who value our natural resources as much as they value economic growth.  With forward thinking and good planning, it is possible to have both.

 

Q: What can I do to help the gopher tortoise specifically?

A: Much of this site is dedicated to doing just that.  There are also some guidelines which should be followed if gopher tortoises are present in your yard or community.

1)      Learn much more about the gopher tortoise itself by clicking here, or review the wealth of material presented in the main menu of this site.  In particular, you may wish to help promote awareness and understanding in recognizing threats to tortoises, some of which may be in violation of the laws designed to protect them.  Good information sources also include the library, zoo, and the Gopher Tortoise Council.  Continue to read about gopher tortoise and other wildlife at the library or on our suggested internet site list.

2)      You can learn more about tortoise habitat, to assist in determining the presence of tortoises.  If you are aware of gopher tortoises that are likely to be in danger of site development in the near future, you can complete our online tortoise alert submission form.  Click here to do so.

3)      If you are planning to build a structure where there are gopher tortoises please contact the FWCC to obtain a permit.

4)      Do not transfer a tortoise from one location to another.  Although a person might feel he is doing the right thing by rescuing a tortoise from a bad situation, there are many reasons why it is not a good practice.  Just one reason is that tortoises stressed by encroaching human development are more susceptible to disease and may be infected with URTD, or other diseases.  Signs of URTD especially are not always evident.  Discourage your friends and neighbors from taking tortoises or moving them to new homes.  It may be possible to employ a tortoise relocation service licensed by the state of Florida.

5)      Dogs, cats, and kids are potentially serious threats to adult tortoises in neighborhoods, especially dogs.  Young tortoises are especially at risk, but dogs can chew through the shell, and feral cats have been discovered chewing the back legs off a fully grown healthy adult tortoise.  Keep cats and dogs from roaming, since they may harass or even kill tortoises.  For detail on training your pets to leave tortoises alone, see our problems and solutions section.

6)      Watch out for gopher tortoises and other wildlife while you are driving.  Although resilient, a tortoise is unlikely to survive a collision.

7)      If you happen to come across an injured tortoise, our tortoise first aid section will assist you in delivering it to proper care promptly.

 

Q: Can I keep a gopher tortoise as a pet?

A: Gopher tortoises need to dig burrows, roam and graze freely to remain healthy.  If a gopher tortoise chooses to burrow on it’s own and live in your yard you could think of it as having a gopher tortoise as a pet, but you must not confine, harass or domesticate a gopher tortoise.

Keeping gopher tortoise as pets is illegal unless you have a permit.  There are many tortoises that have been confiscated in other states or have been taken in after being injured and repaired and are being held by animal rehabilitation facilities around the state.  It is possible to obtain a permit to take one or more of these tortoises in situations where they cannot escape or are not in contact with other wild tortoises.  Contact your local FWCC office for details.  However, bear in mind that gopher tortoises live a long time, 80+ years.  If you are considering adopting a tortoise as a pet in your yard, one should consider it a permanent resident.  If you are going to apply to obtain a tortoise needing rescue, the question may be asked about your long term plans and how they may affect the tortoise on your property.  This is true if you are getting a tortoise that will not be free ranging.  Should you need to move or should the tortoise outlive you it will require care or transfer to another property of someone who would take care of it.

 

Q: Do tortoises drink?

A: Yes.  The gopher tortoise can drink from the sheet flow during heavy rains if the apron is large enough.  The rain will run down and collect in a narrower stream at the corner of the burrow.  A tortoise using one foot to dam up the flow can lower its head and drinks its fill in only 20 seconds.

There is a considerable amount of misunderstanding on the subject of the water requirement of tortoises. This is unfortunate, as a number of pathological conditions are directly related to the availability or otherwise of environmental water, and to the general hydration status of reptiles such as tortoises.

The most common health problems associated with a sub-optimum level of hydration or prolonged period of environmental water deprivation include an accumulation of solidified uric acid in the renal system and bladder; articular gout; and kidney failure.  All of these are extremely serious conditions and it should be noted that dehydration, even for short periods, could have grave long-term consequences.

 

Q: Tell me about the technology you now use to study Gopher Tortoises in the field.

A: Radiolocation transmitters, GPS tracking devices, digital audio recorders and infrared cameras are commonly used.  With long-term and vigilant visual observation, we are just now beginning to understand this animal.

 

Q: How long do baby tortoises take to leave the egg?

A:  From the time when they initially pierce the egg, it usually takes between 8-24 hours.  The first small fracture is to permit air breathing to begin - prior to this time the embryos oxygen demand has been met via permeation through the egg shell.  This first small hole is gradually enlarged over the next few hours.  The hatchling may then sit in the egg for quite some time whilst its egg sac is absorbed. Until this is absorbed the hatchling remains especially vulnerable, as movement is seriously impaired.

 

Q:  Do all the eggs from a single clutch hatch at about the same time, or are some later than others in leaving the egg?

A: There can certainly be a considerable delay between emergence of the first hatchling and the last - in the case of Mediterranean tortoises we have experienced periods of up to 18 days and even longer may be possible. With some tropical species the time scale can be very extended indeed. This effect is noted even in highly accurate and stable incubators, and only seems to happen occasionally.

 

Q: Often asked when learning about the fire cycle, is “what happens to the tortoises during these fires - aren’t they all killed?”

A: No, not often, or at least not as long as the natural order is permitted to run its course.  If fires are prevented for extended periods however, the fire - when it does come - will have an excess of dry fuel to feed upon, and temperatures will rise far higher than they would if more regular, but ‘faster’ fires occur.  In these circumstances, wildlife casualties will be much higher.  According to Ray Ashton, founder of GTCI, who has studied these animals extensively over many years, the tortoises have a keenly developed awareness of smoke in the air, and head for safety down the nearest burrow at the first sign of danger.  There, they can sit out most fires of normal density and duration without suffering even a singe.  In addition to providing much-needed protection in the event of an inferno, these burrows also provide a critical humid microclimate, which is utilized extensively.  To learn more about the fire cycle, click here.