Gopher Tortoise
Gopher Tortoise An important member of the longleaf pine community © FWC

Stories in Florida

Gopher Tortoise

Land conservation efforts at our preserves are underway to protect this keystone species.

Gopher tortoises are found in all 67 counties in Florida and are an important species of the rapidly disappearing longleaf pine forest and wiregrass landscapes. The gopher tortoise originated in North America 60 million years ago, making it one of the oldest living species, and they may live up to 80 years.

This umbrella species builds burrows in the sandy soil, providing refuge for many animals and insects.
Gopher Tortoise This umbrella species builds burrows in the sandy soil, providing refuge for many animals and insects. © FWC

A Keystone Species

These gentle reptiles dig deep burrows for shelter and forage on low-growing plants. Their large limbs are uniquely designed to excavate burrows up to 33 feet long in Florida’s sandy soils. They share their burrows with more than 350 other species including the Eastern indigo snake, rodents, gopher frog, Florida mouse, and hundreds of invertebrates like beetles and crickets who also depend on the burrows for shelter and predator protection. This makes gopher tortoises a keystone species—one without which many other species would not survive.

A single tortoise may dig more than one burrow a season, and multiple tortoises may occupy the same burrow. These underground tunnels provide ideal winter hibernation quarters, retreats from the summer heat and shelter from fire for both the tortoise and the other resident animals who share their quarters

Navigates its way along the forest floor.
Gopher Tortoise Navigates its way along the forest floor. © Karine Aigner
Gopher Tortoise Plaque
Bronze Gopher Tortoise Sits atop a plaque at Tiger Creek Preserve © Gregg Matthews

Threats to Gopher Tortoise Habitat

The gopher tortoise traditionally thrived in the longleaf pine forest habitat which once stretched across the South, nearly unbroken, from Virginia to Florida to Texas. Today less than 5 percent remains of the 90-million-acre original system. This drastic reduction in habitat, along with ever-increasing development has made the gopher tortoise a threatened species in Florida.

TNC is actively restoring and protecting the longleaf pine communities that the gopher tortoise needs to survive. The tortoises thrive in the grassy, sandy soils of open longleaf pine forests that are maintained through the periodic application of prescribed fire.

Tiger Creek Preserve and its nearly 5,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness is home to a healthy gopher tortoise population, and our land conservation efforts on the preserve will help to ensure its survival for the future, and the many species who depend upon it. We diligently work to keep their habitat suitable with a strong prescribed fire program at Tiger Creek Preserve, Disney Wilderness Preserve, and Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, to name a few of our favorite places.  

Annual Celebration of the Gopher Tortoise
Gopher Tortoise Day Annual Celebration of the Gopher Tortoise © FWC

Celebrate Gopher Tortoise Day

April 10th was officially adopted by the Gopher Tortoise Council as Gopher Tortoise Day! Gopher tortoises are found in every Florida county and are frequently encountered in neighborhoods, along roadways, and in many of Florida’s public parks and forests. The goal of Gopher Tortoise Day is to increase awareness and appreciation for these long lived, gentle reptiles.

You can help celebrate Florida’s only native tortoise by hosting an event in your community, asking your local City or County Commission to officially adopt April 10 as Gopher Tortoise Day, and by educating others on the importance of protecting gopher tortoises. Or you can simply admire a gopher tortoise on their special day, from a distance, to let them show you how they maneuver in the world.