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
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
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
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
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."
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