Georgia's Living Dinosaurs : Gopher Tortoise-Gopherus polyphemus

Southeastern Georgia 1955

“How come you don’t plant nuthin’ in that spot over yonder” the little boy asked his grandfather “cain’t you plant some backer or peanuts there?” “No honey, the boys got to have some place to live” the old man replied.

The boys he was referring to was a colony of gopher tortoises which inhabited a sandy corner of a field atop a steep ridge . In truth, the ground was not fit to grow anything but scrub oak and wiregrass. “How long they been livin’ here grandpaw?”

Now intrigued, the little boy wanted to look down in some of the burrows to see if he could see some of the “boys.” The old man thought awhile before replying. In the meanwhile the boy was trying to stick his head down in the burrow to see the tortoise. "Since Noah beached the ark, I imagine" he finally said

“Git back here youngun, rattlesnakes live in them holes with the gophers, leave ’em be”! Grabbing the child by the seat of his pants, the old man finally managed to drag the protesting child away from the village. Only one solitary tortoise was in sight. But the child never forgot about the ancient creatures on the ridge.

The Lifespan of a Gopher Tortoise

Young gopher tortoise keeping an eye out for predators
Young gopher tortoise keeping an eye out for predators
The rings on the gopher tortoise's plates may be counted like tree rings to discern the age of the creature.
The rings on the gopher tortoise's plates may be counted like tree rings to discern the age of the creature.
This gopher tortoise is eating grass as indicated by the tell-tale greenery around its mouth.
This gopher tortoise is eating grass as indicated by the tell-tale greenery around its mouth.

Gopher Tortoise Decline Causes

The gopher tortoise, or Gopherus polyphemus, was first identified in 1791 by Francois Marie Daudin. One of only four species of tortoise found in the US and the only representative of the species found in the eastern part of the country. This once plentiful species of gentle creatures is now declining at an alarming rate.

There are several factors contributing to the lowering of the gopher tortoise population, whether in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, or other eastern states with a measurable population.

Besides the aforementioned suspicion of the boll weevil eradication program's impact on the species, other causes include residential encroachment, lack of control burning, introduction of intrusive species which prey upon the eggs, and the application of agricultural herbicides and pesticides.

Though rarely reaching a length of over 15 inches in length or weighing over 10 pounds, the gopher tortoise may live over 100 years and bear many clutches of eggs--5 to 7 usually--during its lifetime.

The mating season takes place in the spring with the eggs being hatched in the latter part of summer. If an infant gopher tortoise can avoid being eaten for two years, it stands a good chance of becoming an adult.

Gopher Tortoise Young

Gopher tortoise young, heading for the safety of the burrow.
Gopher tortoise young, heading for the safety of the burrow.
These babies were reared for release by local  volunteer wildlife conservationists.
These babies were reared for release by local volunteer wildlife conservationists.

Threats To Gopher Tortoise Young

The eggs and young of the gopher tortoise are preyed upon by many species of both animal and fowl. Raccoons and opossum will search for the eggs an will often eat the entire clutch of eggs. The invasive armadillo has migrated north from Florida and also destroys the nest as it digs near, or inhabits, the gopher tortoise burrow.

Because of the particular habitat required for the gopher tortoise to reproduce--sand hills which can easily be excavated and sparse ground covering--the current policy of less control burning of the woodlands has allowed the undergrowth to make the habitat less suitable for the species existence. Thankfully, more controlled burning is being used as the native long leaf pine is being planted once again in the southeast.

With plenty of wire grass and other low vegetation to feed upon, the gopher tortoise has no problem finding sustenance nor problems from predators other than man. Since the age of the dinosaurs these gentle creatures have inhabited the sandy hillsides where perhaps only stunted oaks and wire grass, and palmettos grow.

Endangered Species in Florida

Florida gopher tortoise-Zephaniah Kingsley Plantation fort George Island
Florida gopher tortoise-Zephaniah Kingsley Plantation fort George Island | Source
Source

A Keystone Species

The demise of the gopher tortoise would mean other species of insects, reptiles, and amphibians might have no safe place to live or reproduce.  The creatures which cohabit with the tortoise in its burrow are called commensals.

There are several hundred of these species which may be found living in the burrows provided by the gopher tortoise.  If the gopher tortoise vanishes, so will many of the commensals.  In this writer's area the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake has vanished along with many of the gopher tortoises. Now canebrakes (timber rattlesnakes) are filling the gap.

This is why Gopherus polyphemus is considered a Keystone species, or a species which aids in the propagation of numerous other species of animals in their immediate environment.  A chain reaction of extinction in the making in some cases.  Not a pleasant nor welcome thought.  

Gopher Tortoise Winter Quarters

Leaves block the entrance to a gopher tortoise burrow preventing cold air from entering during the winter months.
Leaves block the entrance to a gopher tortoise burrow preventing cold air from entering during the winter months.

A Promise Of Honor

This writer has made a promise to the remaining gopher tortoises living on the sandy hillside of his farm.  And to his now deceased grandfather and his father, who made sure the "boys" were undisturbed during their lifetime of operating thefarm and tenure of the colony.

But to my grandfather especially, because he smiled at the old residents as they grazed peacefully around his meadows.  "The boys are eatin' late today" he would muse "gonna rain tomorrow, I reckon."   

I promise you this--“The boys will have a place to live as long as I have anything to say about it, Grandfather."

Sources

http://www.dnr.sc.gov/cwcs/pdf/GopherTortoise.pdf

http://www.fws.gov/daphne/gopher/index.html


http://www.uga.edu/srelherp/SPARC/trip20.htm

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Comments 25 comments

Pandoras box 5 years ago

Fascinating and inspiring, as always! Thanks!


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Thanks as always, PB! Protecting these gentle creatures is very important to me. I can't let them disappear on my watch!

Thanks again for your time!

Randy


Five One Cows profile image

Five One Cows 5 years ago from Moo Town

I really enjoyed reading all about these turtles.


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Glad you liked the article, Five One Cows! They've been around 80,000,000 years and I hope they are around that much longer.

I appreciate your time.

Randy


suziecat7 profile image

suziecat7 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

Awww - I love turtles. Great informational Hub - enjoyed the read - thanks.


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Me too, Suziecat! Notice how I used the baby turtle to draw in turtle lovers. LOL! I enjoy watching these "boys" while working the ridges.

Thanks for the nice comments!

Randy


diogenese 5 years ago

Hi Randy: A beautiful and informative article. May your little residents live there another 100 million years. Voted up and awesome...Bob


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

Happy to hear about the long -leafed pine. this is a great info hub, I live in the mid-caro's and do all I can to protect our local box Ts. Loved how you opened w/grandpaw, o well from one turtle lover to another you've got a fan.


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

@diogenese- Glad you liked the article, Bob! I'll do my best to make sure they do last a few million more years! Thanks for your great comments.

Randy


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Welcome to HubPages, Alastar Packer! Yes, we have to do what we can to help protect these wonderful creatures. Thanks for protecting the little box turtles and for giving my article a look.

And for the great input too!

Randy


sonia05 profile image

sonia05 5 years ago from india

how very interesting!! great hub!


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Thanks for reading and for the comments too, Sonia!

Randy


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

Thank you for such a sweet story and great information.


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

@Hello,hello-Thank you once again for taking the time to peruse my hubs. I do appreciate the time you spend commenting on so many of our articles. I will try to repay the honor!

Randy


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia

Enjoyed the read, RD! The hunting camp seems to have a fairly healthy gopher tortoise population. Rated up!


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Thanks Holle!

Yes, the terrain at the hunting camp is perfect for these creatures, and armadillos too! Nice soft sand to burrow in and it drains quickly when it rains!


nicomp profile image

nicomp 5 years ago from Ohio, USA

I love turtles. We stopped our bike ride yesterday to 'rescue' a turtle from a busy road. He would have baked or been run over. I hope we put him on the right side.


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Good for you, nicomp! I try to do the same for the creatures when given the chance. Thanks for the visit!

Randy


Wolfyone profile image

Wolfyone 5 years ago from Central Maine

I enjoyed your article, especially the wonderful photos. I never had a chance to see gopher tortoises but lived in an area where the Eastern Box Turtle was a native. We had a backyard enclosure where they dined on berries that fell off a large tree overhanging the "turtlearium". Fresh veggies from our garden and all the earthworms and bugs they could find. We had the pleasure of watching females laying clutches of eggs and the joy of raising hatchlings that would fit on a quarter. Your article brought back all those fond memories. Thank you!


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Hello Wolfyone. I'm glad to hear of your joy in watching these gentle creatures as they share this planet with us. I need to add some photos of the gopher tortoises in their burrows I took a few weeks ago.

Thanks for stopping by and for the great memories you have of the Box Turtles. I saw one trying to cross I-75 a few days ago and was sorry I could not stop and save it because of the dangerous traffic. I hope it made it back to safety.

Randy


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Outstanding Hub, Sir. Not really a tortoise, but I recently wrote one about the common snapping turtle, which along with the box turtle - is about all that I ever see around here in North and East Texas.

I'm mostly concerned about the Hawksbill Sea Tortoise, which is the source of the world's best plectrums for music - but I'd also hate to see a tortoise killed for me or anyone else to have a guitar or mandolin pick.

But nothing else. . . can match that sound!


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

We have some huge softshell and snapping turtles here too, Westman. I use synthetic picks because of the sea turtles plight and settle for the less pleasing sound on acoustic instruments.

Thanks for stopping in, as usual, and for the great comments.

Randy


Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

Very well done! I like the way you introduced the topic and I had no idea you were the boy until I got to the end. Good for you to honor your grandfather's wishes. Tortoises are the last remaining breed of dinosaurs still alive and we need to protect them. I wholeheartedly agree. In addition to all that, I totally enjoyed this Hub and learned a few things from it, such as that the Gopher Tortoises aid other animals with their propagation. That shows how the lose of one species can destroy the survival of others. Voted up and awesome.


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 4 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Thanks so much for your comments, Glenn. I'm glad you appreciate these noble creatures as I do. I check on these tortoises every few days in their little corner of our farm and worry they will not be around much longer.

These keystone species support many other creatures with their burrows and each has their own niche to fill in the environment in this area. I'm lucky to be able to watch them live their peaceful lives and hope they outlive me, as they should.

Thanks for your time!

Randy


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 3 years ago from Southern Georgia Author

Pleased this article has inspired you to make a video hub, claudyobcn. Thanks for your time! :)

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