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What do you do when you see a gopher tortoise in Florida? The first thing is to congratulate yourself because seeing one is a special experience. Here are other reasons why…
Reasons Why Gopher Tortoises are Cool!
- They are one of five North American tortoise species and the only one found east of the Mississippi River.
- They live in each of Florida’s 67 counties.
- Gopher tortoises have some level of protection in the states they are found.
- They are a candidate species for federal protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- In the wild, they can live 40 to 60 years.
- These tortoises spend up to 80 percent of their time in their burrows.
- Gopher tortoises are a keystone species and their burrows provide refuges for about 350 native species.
- The official state tortoise of Florida is…the gopher tortoise!
If You See a Gopher Tortoise…
You may encounter a gopher tortoise on a Florida hiking trail through pine flatwoods or xeric oak hammocks. You may see one in a residential area or near a beach.
Admire gopher tortoises from a distance and DO NOT touch them, it is illegal to do so. UNLESS, there is a gopher tortoise in the road. In this case, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) grants permission to pick it up and move it in the same direction it is headed and off the road. And please drive cautiously through areas that have gopher tortoise crossing signs.
If you see a gopher tortoise at or near the beach or near the water, please DO NOT pick it up and place it in the water. It is a tortoise, meaning a land-dwelling reptile. If placed in the water, it probably won’t survive. They are diggers and not swimmers.
Report your gopher tortoise sighting with the new FWC interactive web application. It’s easy to use, just visit MyFWC.com/GopherTortoise and select the “Report Gopher Tortoise Sightings” button. Sick, injured, and dead tortoises can be reported here, too. The site includes an interactive map which includes locations of gopher tortoise sightings throughout Florida and user-submitted photos.
Be Kind and Respect Florida’s Native Wildlife
As development swallows up Florida’s native habitats and more people visit and move in, it’s important developers, visitors, and newcomers understand the importance of gopher tortoises. People care for and protect what they love, which is why I wrote this post.
My PSA About Gopher Tortoises
I live in a community that has a gopher tortoise awareness program and since 2012, when I moved into my home, I had a gopher tortoise neighbor. I saw him several times a week either in my yard munching on weeds or scooting around the neighborhood (gopher tortoises are quicker than you think). It’s an honor having an important species in my backyard. He became part of my everyday life and during these strange days of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing him regularly was a bright spot.
Sadly, I found him on his back, dead, a couple of weeks ago and I was crushed. What was worse was knowing that although he’s been here since I moved here in 2012 and neighbors knew about him, my community government, the one with the gopher tortoise awareness program, did not know he was here! I’ve had some guilt for not reporting my sightings to the community or FWC. I wonder if I had if he’d still be alive.
My hopes are that others will appreciate gopher tortoises and other native wildlife and go out of their way to find a balance between development and natural areas. Without gopher tortoises and all keystone species we lose the state’s character which threatens the health of the environment. And if we don’t have our health, what do we have?