“Gopher tortoises are a keystone species,” related Pamela Jones-Morton, a volunteer at the Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero on Monday morning, April 10, to roughly 50 people. “They get their name because they dig deep, large burrows that provides a safe environment for over 350 other animals, meaning if a keystone species does not survive, then all those others can’t either – isn’t that amazing! If you have a gopher tortoise in your yard, you are fortunate!”
Sadly, their numbers are in steep decline, with less than 800,000 in Florida. “Human activity eliminates a significant portion of their historic range,” Pam explained. “Development and people are its primary threats, as they live in dry areas and we build houses in dry areas, plus we like to drive from Point A to Point B, so roads separate their habitat and are a danger to them when they try to cross.” There are just three species in United States, but the gopher tortoise is the only one east of the Mississippi River, so its range is lower Mississippi, southern Georgia and Alabama, and all of Florida. They are federally-endangered in Mississippi and federally-threatened in the other states.
“Burrows are critical to their habitat,” Pam tells the group. “They can be 10 feet deep and at least 50 feet long; we know of burrows that go up to 156 feet. Burrows shelter not just the gopher tortoise but many others like the gopher mouse, gopher frog, black racer snake, crickets, owls, insects and invertebrates. Sharing the burrow with a gopher tortoise is like living in a condominium! All these species go into it to get out of the sun or for protection from fires. People often ask why these creatures don’t eat one-another, but remember animals only eat when they are hungry and not out of malice, so isn’t it amazing they can get along in there? Life in the burrow is fascinating; there is a lot going on in that little world you don’t see!”
Hot for Girls, Cool for Boys
Mating is April to June, and they look for a partner by sense of smell. They do not lay eggs inside the burrow but by the entrance. A clutch is from 3 to 18 eggs and are the size of a ping-pong ball. “They need 80 to 100 days to hatch, but unfortunately have a small survival rate because they are great food for other creatures,” Pam related matter-of-factly. “The heat of the nest determines the sex; hot for girls, cool for boys. Baby shells remain soft for six or seven years, and they stay with their mom for a period of time in same burrow before striking out on their own, though often nearby. Those that make adulthood are 10 to 12 inches long and weigh up to 9 pounds, with a lifespan of 40 to 60 years, though some live into their 70s.”
People can generally tell if a burrow is in use or vacant by its entrance. If it has a half-moon, like the gopher tortoise shape, and is clear of debris, it is probably active. If it is round and full of leaves and twigs, then most likely not, but be careful as there still may be burrowing owls or a fox.
Body parts include the fibulas, tibia, pelvis, scapula, fingers, skull, heart, liver, lungs, brain, pancreas and spleen; “I bet you never thought you were so much like a tortoise,” Pam says with a laugh! “Males have a concave shell with a large gular horn where its head projects from its shell, while females have a flat shell and small gular, so you can look right at their front rather than flipping them over to determine the sex. Gopher tortoises cannot draw into their shell, like box turtles, but pull in its head, then covers it with its really tough-skinned front legs for protection.” Its shell interconnects around its entire body, so when the shell is damaged, the tortoise is damaged.
“They cannot swim,” Pam says with necessary emphasis! “I love your kind heart but never put a tortoise in the water! Let the animal decide if it wants to swim, as tortoises get most of their water through their food. If you see a tortoise crossing the road, cover it with a towel before you pick it up, and take it for safety to the grass in the direction it is heading; we don’t know why it is going that way, but just let it go on its way. Cover them with a towel because some are snappers, and a gopher tortoise may poop on you!”
Pam describes gopher tortoises as “terrific when it comes to habitat pruning, as they cut the grass and keep plants under control by eating all those juicy morsels. They are free gardeners, as they distribute seeds throughout their range via their scat, but they may not give you the plants that you want!”
The Koreshan State Historic Site allows visitors to explore the 19th century religious settlement that was instrumental as well to the early history of Fort Myers Beach. There are landscaped grounds, eleven restored buildings, and nature trails, picnicking, canoeing, and camping on its 200 acres. A Junior Ranger Program will be held Saturday, April 15, at 10 a.m. The site is at 3800 Corkscrew Road at the intersection of US41 in Estero, 33928, roughly 30 minutes from Fort Myers Beach; for details call 239-992-0311 or see FloridaStateParks.org.
There are at least 8 gopher tortoise burrows at the Koreshan State Historic Site and more can be found in Bowditch Point Park on Fort Myers Beach. If you would like to assist the State in monitoring the gopher tortoise, download onto your cell the app available at myfwc.com; if you see a distressed gopher tortoise, immediately call the Wildlife Alert Line at 800-404-3922. “Take a photo of the burrow and record the GPS to the map,” Pam implores, “so we can know where are all the gopher tortoises in Florida – isn’t that cool!”