Thursday, November 26, 2020

Diggin’ Into Another Burrowing Species

Gopher Tortoise

Gopher Tortoise

You may know we have sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, pond sliders, cooters and snapping turtles in our lakes and ponds, but did you know that Marco Island has a very healthy and active population of Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus)?  They are like our own miniature dinosaurs; okay, they are not as old as dinosaurs, but first observed and recorded by naturalists in Florida around 1773. It is the only ‘land’ turtle or tortoise species remaining in the southeastern United States.

Driving by an Estates or Tigertail Beach area property, you may notice a fresh mound (or two) of sand and an opening in the ground. This is the Gopher Tortoise’s burrow.  If it is a warm, sunny day, you may spot a rock moving along the property – the legs and head give it away – you have just spotted a Gopher Tortoise. The tortoises are medium sized, averaging 10 inches long and about nine pounds in weight.  Some can be 17 inches in length.  You can estimate sizes of the tortoises by looking at the burrow opening: the width of the burrow entrance approximates the length of the tortoise that inhabits that burrow. The carapace (top shell) is brown-grey in color and the plastron (bottom shell) is yellow or tan.  Th color of hatchlings is lighter, and sometimes referred to as ‘butterscotch’, which is the perfect camouflage color of the natural grasses and habitat in which they thrive. Their feet are clawed and not webbed like one would expect.  Non-webbed feet means they are not good swimmers as this species is an upland tortoise.  The front legs are spade-like with claws adapted for digging and their back legs are stout, somewhat like elephant legs.

Gopher Tortoises prefer dry places, not water or wetlands, like the Slash Pine/Palmetto woods of Rookery Bay, Marco Island’s upland scrub habitats, the beach dunes, and prairies in South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. They dig burrows to live underground for shelter.  Typically they do not live in groups, but it is not unusual to have one or two tortoises in the same area. Some tortoise watchers on the Island say the tortoises are quite social with each other, visiting burrows of neighboring tortoise on a regular basis.  Other than basking in the warm sun, tortoises spend the day foraging grasses, berries, and fruit. They are strictly vegetarian. Prickly Pear and Gopher Apple are favorite native plants species.

They will dig more than one and sometimes up to four burrows. The burrow tunnels can be up to 40 feet, but usually 10-15 feet in length, about one to four feet below the surface of the ground with no exit. The burrows are used by many other animals – insects, frogs, lizards, snakes – over 250 different species have been documented using a tortoise’s burrow. Since their preferred habitat is the type that will burn naturally on occasion, burrows are used for shelter by the tortoises and other species during fires. This is why the Gopher Tortoise is recognized as a Florida ‘keystone’ species that warrants protection of habitat, burrows, and its eggs. If a burrow is destroyed, many other species are impacted as well.

Living to be 50

Baby Tortoise

Baby Tortoise

to 60 years old, Gopher Tortoises can reproduce when they are about 10-15 years old. The female will lay three to 15 eggs in spring months when the weather warms, digging a shallow imprint to lay the eggs and covering them about 12-20 inches from the entrance of the burrow. The eggs incubate under the sun-warmed sandy soil. Hatching in two to three months, depending how warm the weather, the tiny, one-inch hatchlings will live in the mother’s burrow for a few months, and then wander off to dig their own burrows and hide in the vegetation from predators such as snakes, birds of prey, raccoons, or bobcats.  

Gopher Tortoises frequently cross our island roads so use caution and follow the speed limits. Inlet Drive, Ludlow Court, and Spinnaker Drive are a few roads that have frequent tortoise mortalities due to speeding vehicles.

The gopher tortoise is listed by the State of Florida as Threatened.  Without proper management this tortoise is likely to become an endangered species in the future. The primary reason for the decline of this species is habitat destruction. The gopher tortoises’ protected status makes it illegal to take, harm, or harass this species under Rule 39-27.002 of the Florida Administrative Code. Additionally, the destruction of gopher tortoise burrows constitutes ‘taking’ under this law, except when authorized by specific permit. If you are planning the development of a current gopher tortoise habitat or have been notified that tortoises are located on your property, you should be fully aware of your responsibilities and the available management options. The following list provides options provided by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to develop your property and assist in conserving this dwindling species:

  • Avoid developing in the area occupied by tortoises. No permit is required.
  • When developing, avoid gopher tortoise burrows by avoiding concentrations of burrows altogether and/or staying at least 25 feet from entrances of individual burrows.  No permit is required.
  • Relocate, through permitting options of on site or off site relocation, those tortoises that would be within the footprint of development/construction activities. An environmental consultant may be used to further explore this option.  A permit is required from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.  For further information and the State’s Gopher Tortoise Management Plan, please go to www.MyFWC.com.  

Nancy Richie and her husband Michael, have lived on Marco Island since 1992; they have two daughters, Madeleine and Camille. With a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Biology from Texas A&M University at Galveston, she was the microbiology analyst for an environmental laboratory, Enviropact, and then a hazardous waste inspector for the Collier County Pollution Control Department before becoming the City’s Environmental Specialist in May 1999. In 2005 she received the Guy Bradley Award from the Collier County Audubon Society for her stewardship of Marco Island’s environment.  A few of her duties at the City include: vegetation trimming permitting, beach vendor permitting, protected species monitoring, water quality monitoring, staff representative for the Beach Advisory Committee, and a liaison with federal, state, county and local environmental agencies and groups.

Nancy is a member of St. Marks Church, Friends of Tigertail Beach, the
Audubon Society, and Marco Island Historical Society. We are pleased to share her expertise with our readers.

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