Photo Credit: Craig Guyer
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Gopherus polyphemus
DESCRIPTION: The gopher tortoise, also called, gopher, gopher turtle, or hoover chicken, is a large land turtle that burrows dens underground. The tortoise shell is a collection of scutes that make up the top of the shell called the carapace. The carapace is dome-shaped and can grow as long as 15 inches from front to back. The belly of the tortoise is made of smooth plates called the plastron. Like the carapace, the tortoise is grayish brown with large flipper-like, heavily-scaled front legs and strong toenails for digging. The back legs are elephant like and used for pushing ahead or backing up. The tortoise has a reduced tail between the back legs. To the front of the plastron just under the head are gular projections that are longer on males than on females. The plastron is pale yellow with the scutes usually worn. The carapace on juvenile tortoises is more yellowish brown with well-defined concentric growth rings on each scute. Older tortoise’s scutes are usually worn smooth. Sexually dimorphic, the males are smaller on average and have longer gular projections in front and a deep concave rear plastron. The female has a plastron with shorter gular projections in front and is flat to the rear. Larger mental glands are found under the chin of older males. In North America there are four extant species (desert tortoise,
DISTRIBUTION: Gopher tortoises occur in scattered populations in sandy upland habitat from southeastern
HABITAT: The largest populations occur in dry, deep sandy soils where the overhead canopy is open. This allows the tortoise suitable habitat for digging deep burrows, and the required sunlight on the ground for thermo-regulation, nesting, and incubation of the eggs. The open canopy also allows for the growth of plants like grasses and forbs on which the tortoises feed. The best populations in
Auffenberg, W., and R. Franz. 1982. The status and distributionof the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).Pp 95-126 in R. B. Bury, ed. North America tortoises: Conservation and ecology, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Res. Rep. 12, Washinton D.C.
Diemer, J. E. 1986. The ecology and management of the gopher tortoise in the southeastern United States. Herpetologica 42:125-133.
Mirarchi. Alabama Wildlife Volume 3 , Imperiled Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals. Pp. 82-83. The University of Alabama Press Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Threatened and Endangered Species of Alabama: A Guide to Assist with Forestry Activities. A cooperative publication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Daphne, Alabama Field Office, Champion International Corporation, and Canal Wood Corporation. Pp 29-30.
Author: James Altiere, Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
August 2011 Article by US Fish and Wildlife Service "Gopher Tortoise Becomes Candidate Species"
Advisory Board Bans ‘Gassing’ of Wildlife Burrows
The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board unanimously passed a motion at the March 7 meeting in Montgomery to make it “illegal to introduce gasoline or any other noxious chemical or gaseous substance into wildlife burrows, dens or retreats.”
This specifically targets the practice of “gassing” gopher tortoise burrows to flush out and capture eastern diamondback rattlesnakes that has been a common practice used by some snake hunters. Scientific studies have shown that the introduction of gas into a gopher tortoise burrow results in death of the wildlife in many cases, sometimes two to three months later. This technique is not an ecologically sound practice and has been prohibited in Florida and Georgia for a number of years.
The gopher tortoise is a state-protected species and is currently federally-listed as a threatened species in three Alabama counties: Mobile, Washington, and Choctaw counties. It is considered a “keystone” species, with over 300 wildlife species being documented using its burrow as refuge and dens, including species of concern such as the federally listed Eastern Indigo snake and black pine snake.
In the fall of 2008, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division funded a wildlife research project with Auburn University to survey the population of gopher tortoises in select areas and study reintroduction efforts. This will provide information to assist WFF in formulating sound techniques for restoring gopher tortoises to much of its original range. Other conservation efforts are underway by WFF to preclude the further decline of important wildlife species such as the gopher tortoise and eastern indigo snake.