Gopher tortoises get their name for the extensive burrow systems they dig, which can extend up to forty feet in length and ten feet deep. This is also what makes them a keystone species in the Florida ecosystem. These burrows provide shelter for a wide range of animals including snakes, lizards, rabbits and many others. The burrows are also a natural shelter during wildfires, providing a safe haven for animals that would otherwise be caught in the path of the flames. When threatened, a gopher tortoise will retreat to its burrow if nearby. If they are too far, the tortoise will pull its body into the shell and hiss and make a little jump forward to scare away the predator.
At the Zoo, we have several gopher tortoises, each with their own unique personalities. We have a gopher tortoise who used to share an exhibit with a couple of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. But he had to be moved to a different exhibit after chasing and harassing the rattlesnakes, even biting at them. You might also notice a short black fence dividing an exhibit near our Manatee Critical Care Center. This is the result of more “tortoise drama” – one gopher tortoise trying to steal the burrow of another tortoise.
We supplement our gopher tortoises’ regular diet by letting them graze on native vegetation. We move the tortoise from their normal enclosure to a new, grassy area to graze while supervised. This is another situation where we can see their personalities. One tortoise might eat every bit of a particular species of plant, but another tortoise will not touch the same weed. Sometimes while grazing, the tortoise will make a full lap and end up where he started – at the feet of the keeper – and some of the “spicier” individuals will hiss at the keeper and then move on to graze some more.
Each gopher tortoise has a vital role to play in the ecosystem. And remember, gopher tortoises are land-dwelling reptiles. If you see one in the wild, do not take it to a beach or pond. They do not swim and are incapable of floating. So please keep an eye open for them crossing the road, especially near the beaches, and make sure your dog is always in sight when outside. Dog bites are one of the most common injuries for wild gopher tortoises. They need all the help and protection they can get!