Gopher tortoises are referred to as a “keystone species,” meaning many species in our ecosystem on Marco Island rely on the gopher tortoises to survive.
The tortoises’ burrows are more like an underground village, providing homes to a variety of other animals such as the indigo snakes, foxes, burrowing owls, gopher mice, gopher frogs and many varieties of insects.
In the early 1980s, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission designated the gopher tortoise as a “game animal,” and they set a limit of five tortoises per person. This meant that a family of four could legally take 20 gopher tortoises each day for their own use, and there were no restrictions on the size of the tortoises taken. Fortunately, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (now called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) cancelled this designation and have conducted expansive research to save Florida’s gopher tortoises. Today there are proper management regulations to protect the gopher tortoise.
Gopher tortoises have been exploited by man for over 4,000 years, according to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida. They provided a very easy source of food for native people and required very minimal hunting skills. The location of a gopher tortoise’s burrow is made very obvious by the well-worn trails. Further, gopher tortoises move very slowly and do not fight back during encounters with humans.
In Marco Island, reports have stated that as late as the 1920s, “Schooners would come from Cuba and gather gopher tortoises from Naples and Marco Island and take back hundreds at a time.”
In certain parts of Florida gopher tortoises are still hunted, caught, cleaned and cooked for food. Although illegal, gopher tortoises are still being bought and sold for their meat. Gopher tortoises are a steady source of meat and are tied to some local social customs. Their shells have been used for flower planters, doorstops, or other decorative purposes. Some people even believe that gopher tortoise meat is an aphrodisiac.
According to interviews published by Trowbridge (1952), “The flesh of the gopher tortoise tends to be tough and chewy unless well-cooked.” The most common preparations are either stews or long, slow simmers. Published favorite recipes refer to a “Minorcan Gopher Tortoise Stew.” In the past, gopher tortoise meat was referred to as “cracker chicken,” “Florida chicken,” “Georgia bacon” and “Hoover chicken.”
The gopher tortoise is a State Threatened Species and in Marco Island there have been occasional reports of gopher tortoises being picked up by motorists, a chance event when the gopher tortoise is crossing the road.
Vehicular strike is the number one cause of death for Marco Island’s gopher tortoise. Here are some tips to help keep our roads safe for the gopher tortoise.
Practice Safe Driving for Gopher Tortoises
- Observe speed limits and wildlife crossing signs.
- Scan the road and shoulder for gopher tortoise.
- Gopher tortoises are slow moving – allow them time to cross the road.
- You can help the gopher tortoise across the road in the direction it was headed, but do not put gopher tortoise in water. It is a land turtle and cannot swim.