Turtles Underground

By Chris Persaud

Photo courtesy of Joshua Scholl

NAME: Gopher tortoise

A.K.A.: Gopherus polyphemus

DATE LAST PHOTOGRAPHED: 01/02/2011

LOCATION LAST PHOTOGRAPHED: FAU Boca campus preserve

GENERAL INFO:  If you’ve ever stumbled into an underground tunnel only to find tortoises, chances are you’ve seen a gopher tortoise. Weighing in at up to 29 pounds and averaging a size of 10 inches in length, the gopher tortoise doesn’t go down easily — except, of course, against humans and the occasional raccoon or domestic dog looking for some hard candy.

Gophe tortoise burrows on FAU Boca campus

Each red dot represents a gopher tortoise burrow. Map courtesy of Joshua Scholl

WHERE TO FIND: Although they usually live in natural places like dry prairies and coastal dunes, gopher tortoises can also live in golf courses, pastures and grassy roadsides. At FAU, they can be found in the preserve and the field to the east of Parking Lot 5 (the one north of the stadium site).  The map to the left shows specific burrow locations as of October 2010.

THE BURROW: Gopher tortoises can dig burrows up to approximately 13.12 feet deep and 39.37 feet long. To put that into perspective, imagine having a friend stand on top of you and you’ll know how deep a gopher tortoise burrow can go. Have yourself and five other friends lie down head to feet and you’ll have an idea of how long a gopher tortoise’s burrow can go.

Of course, one does not simply walk into a gopher tortoise’s hole. If you want to even touch one of these graceful creatures, you need a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to do so.

Photo by Chris Persaud

MATING:  Gopher tortoises can also do another type of “burrowing.”  When looking for a mate, the male gopher tortoise will travel to find a female member of the species.  When he has found her, he may stand straight up into the air while mounting the female.

Fun fact: thanks to a concave part near the rear of the female’s shell, the male is able to keep his balance without falling over!

If you wish to catch gopher tortoises in the act, your best bet is to wait till December — that’s when there is the highest breeding activity.

LIVIN’ RENT FREE: The gopher tortoise isn’t the only animal that lives in its deep, long burrows. It shares its underground home with more than 300 invertebrate and 60 vertebrate species. Among these are the burrowing owl, the Florida mouse, opossum, armadillo, raccoon, and different types of snakes and lizards.

POPULATION IN DECLINE:  Like the burrowing owl, the gopher tortoise’s habitat is being shrunk to make way for construction. In 2009, 30 acres of habitat were destroyed in order to begin building the new football stadium. Thirteen tortoises were displaced. The remaining 90 acres of habitat is mostly unsuitable for gopher tortoises.

A December 2010 population estimation of the gopher tortoise population was 100.

All nonhyperlinked facts, figures and information in this post were provided by senior undergraduate student researcher Joshua Scholl, Dr. Evelyn Frazier and lab/field assistant Leonardo Calle Jr., all of whom make up a research team from FAU’s Department of Biological Sciences.

 

ddddddTHE BURROW: Gopher tortoises can dig burrows up to approximately 13.12 feet deep and 39.37 feet long. To put that into perspective, imagine having a friend stand on top of you and you’ll know how deep a gopher tortoise burrow can go. Have yourself and five other friends lie down head to feet and you’ll have an idea of how long a gopher tortoise’s burrow can go.

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