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Shell-abrating Gopher Tortoise Day at the Wildlife Park

By Florida's Original NatureCoaster™ Posted on April 9, 2019

Emerging from her burrow, a gopher tortoise saunters to a sandy patch of ground being warmed by the morning sun, the perfect site to bask and raise her body temperature. The day ahead is filled with hours of grazing on tender shoots of early Spring grasses, her stumpy legs carrying her thousands of steps to find her favorite forage. She calmly watches as an indigo snake, a fellow threatened species, cautiously exits her burrow. Its glossy black scales shimmer in the sunlight as it passes by her to find its own basking site. After a short time, the gopher tortoise departs from her sandy patch, her domed shell disappearing as she ventures out to take her fill of cactus for breakfast.

Indigo snakes are often found in Gopher Tortoise burrows. 360 species use these burrows for their home or a refuge from storms and predators.

Gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) are Florida’s only native tortoise and live completely on dry land. They are easily identified by their distinctive shovel-like forelimbs and stumpy, elephantine hind feet. Their shell is smooth and uniform from daily travel into and out of their sandy burrows, much like you’d expect sandpaper to smooth wood from constant abrasion. Gopher tortoises typically live in upland habitats such as sandhill, dry oak hammock, pine flatwoods, and coastal areas. They are also known for making burrows in spaces disturbed by humans and are frequently seen around powerlines, housing developments, and roadsides.

Gopher Tortoise Burrows are critical to the Survival of Endangered Wildlife

Unknown to many Floridians, these reptiles are critical to the survival of various wildlife throughout their range, earning them the designation as a keystone species. The gopher tortoise burrow is not only a refuge for the builder, but for about 360 other species as well. Some of these species include indigo snakes, pine snakes, foxes, gopher frogs, burrowing owls, Florida mice, toads, armadillos, and many invertebrates.

Some make the burrow a permanent home while others may use it on a very temporary basis, such as escaping a predator or seeking refuge from fire. The burrow, along with the gopher tortoise, is protected by state law and must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place. Permits must be applied for and obtained from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) prior to any tortoise-related relocation efforts.

Gopher tortoises need large areas of undeveloped land that is free from human interference. Their primary threat is habitat loss through destruction, fragmentation, and degradation; unfortunately, their native habitat is desirable for development. Human-created barriers can limit access to burrow space and food, increasing the chance that tortoises will encounter humans. Their slow movement and affinity for roadside grazing increase the frequency of road mortality, further reducing populations.

How you can Help Gopher Tortoises

How can you help gopher tortoises? Support agencies that conserve and manage land that includes gopher tortoise habitat, such as Florida State Parks. Learning about these fascinating animals and sharing information with others leads to a better understanding of their important role in the environment. If you have gopher tortoises on your property, appreciate them from a distance and keep dogs and children away.

Never block a gopher tortoise burrow opening and avoid driving over or around the burrow. When driving on the road, stay alert and if you spot a tortoise give it time to cross the road. If you find an injured or dead gopher tortoise, do not remove it from the area. On weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., call 1-850-921-1030. After hours and on weekends, call the FWC’s toll-free Wildlife Alert hotline at 1-888-404-3922, or use #FWC or *FWC on your cell phone.

Image courtesy of FWC

Shell-abrate Gopher Tortoise Day at the Wildlife Park

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park invites everyone to come out and celebrate Gopher Tortoise Day on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Park rangers and volunteers will be in the Garden of the Springs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. with one of the Park’s resident gopher tortoise ambassadors. Learn about tortoises, hear their stories of survival, and get an up-close look at this fascinating threatened species. You’ll leave the park with a better understanding of how important gopher tortoises are in their habitat and what you can do to help protect them.

The event is free, however regular admission is required to gain access to the park. Every visitor into the park will receive a token of tortoise appreciation (while supplies last). For more information on this and other events at the state park, visit FloridaStateParks.org.

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