Gopher Tortoises in Louisiana
Reptile: Gopherus polyphemus
Besides the Common Box Turtle, another land turtle, the Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), inhabits our area in Southeastern Louisiana. These reptiles are uncommon and are on the federally protected list in Louisiana, Mississippi and western Alabama. It is a species of conservation concern throughout its range.
The tunnels that the tortoises dig are very important to the ecosystem in which they live. Countless numbers of other species of animals take shelter in the tunnels during times of crisis.
Gopher tortoise photo is public domain
Identification of Gopher Tortoise
Gopher Tortoise picture is public domain.
The Gopher Tortoise is a medium sized land turtle with an unmarked, smooth dark brown to grayish brown shell. Its rear limbs have an elephantine appearance and the front feet have wide, flattened nails. Both sexes have 2 wart-like glands on the underside of the chin.
Gopher Tortoise Poll
Gopher Tortoises numbers are declining. What should be done?
Tortoise Habits and Habitat
In Louisiana, Gopher Tortoises are only found in the southeastern portion of the state, in the Florida Parishes. They tend to prefer areas with deep sandy soil, where it is easier to dig their burrows, but are sometimes found in areas with clay soil. Traditionally they occupied the savannas of the Long-leaf Pine forests that once spread across the southeastern part of the state. Now they are found in open areas such as right of ways, field edges and fencerows.
Gopher Tortoises are the only southeastern turtle that digs its own burrows. Even hatchling tortoises are capable of digging their own burrow shortly after the leave the nest. The burrows are quite long, averages 15 feet and angling down 6 feet below the surface. The width of the burrow is about the same dimensions as the length of the tortoise because the tortoise has to be able to turn around in it.
Most of the Gopher Tortoise's life is spent underground in its burrow, though it will visit other turtles in their burrows. They are most active from May through September and during warm weather at other times of the year.
These tortoises are mostly vegetarian, although they have been observed, on occasion, feeding of carrion, feces and old bones.
Turtles of the Southeast
This is a well written and illustrated book that all turtle lovers should add to their library. The photos and illustrations are excellent and the information is accurate and current.
Reproduction and Predators
Gopher Tortoises have only one nest each year. Courtship occurs in the fall. Females lay a clutch of 3-9 ping pong shaped eggs in a nest usually just outside or in the opening of the her tunnel in May to early July. They hatch in late August to early October.
There are many predators of the eggs, hatchlings and small juveniles including racoons, opposums, foxes and skunks. Large snakes including coachwhips and indigo snakes can take the young while their shells are still soft. Fire ants are also a problem for eggs and young.
Coyotes, bobcats, feral dogs and large raccoons sometimes prey upon adult tortoises.
Exiting the Burrow
The Gopher Tortoise - A Life Series
Conservation Issues of Gopher Tortoises
Gopher Tortoise populations are on the decline and some individual populations are close to extinction.
In the past, many tortoises were killed for consumption. Additionally, their burrows were gassed to collect Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes that dwell in the burrows during winter and early spring. These influence have negatively impacted the repopulation of this long lived, but low reproducing species.
Gopher Turtles have also suffered from a respiratory disease.
As with the other land turtles in Louisiana, habitat destruction and fragmentation have reduced many populations.
For this species to make a comeback they must be protected and remaining habitats and individual populations must be intensively managed.
Buhlmann, Tuberville and Gibbons, Turtles of Southeastern Louisiana, U. of GA Press, 2008.
Entering the Tunnels
Best of Expeditions - Gopher Tortoise
An in depth study of the Gopher Tortoise Heritage Wildlife Preserve in South Carolina and the importance of the Longleaf Pine / Wire Grass Habitat.
Gopher Tortoise - Endangered and Threatened Animals
Gopher Tortoise Tunnel Video - David Attenborough
A video cam mounted on the back of a Gopher Tortoise allows you to crawl through a borough to view the other animals that use it as a haven.
More About Louisiana Turtles
- Box Turtles of Louisiana
Through the years we have rescued many box turtle. This page has many photographs and much information about the box turtles of Louisiana including Eastern box turtle subspecies and the Ornate.
- Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins of Louisiana
Photos and information about turtles, tortoises and terrapins that inhabit Louisiana as well as links to books and turtle products can be found here.