by Stan Tekiela
April 24, 2013
Photo by Stan Tekiela©
I think one of the great advantages of traveling is being able to see and photograph some super cool wildlife. For example I just returned from a trip to SW Florida. One afternoon after a wildly successful morning photographing Sandhill Crane adults with newly hatched chicks, I stopped by a wildlife area I've never visited before. Scouting out new locations is an essential part of the wildlife photography game.
Right away I saw a few Florida Scrub Jays, an endangered bird species that is only found in Florida. This is a wonderful find and great photographic opportunity but while searching around a little more I found a super cool critter, Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). They are a large turtle like critter that lives on land.
The Gopher Tortoise is a land tortoise that originated in western North America about 60 million years ago. There was at least 23 species of tortoise that existed in America since that time, however only four remain today. These are the Texas Tortoise, Bolson Tortoise, Desert Tortoise and the Gopher Tortoise.
The Gopher Tortoise lives in dry upland habitat in the coastal plain of the southeastern US. The vast majority of these turtle-like critters are found in north central Florida and southern Georgia. They are called gopher tortoise because they live in underground tunnel-like burrows, just like gophers, that they excavate themselves using their front feet. Each burrow can be up to 40 feet long and sink to the depth of 10 feet. Each burrow has only one entrance and is only wide enough for the tortoise to turn around once inside.
It is thought that they can live 40-60 years. They grow slowly from the size of a quarter at hatching and can grown very large. They eat a variety of green plants along with fruit from trees and cactus.
Females tend to be larger than males. They are slow to reproduce, with females first laying eggs at age 5 or older. They reproduce only once a year and they often skip several years between breeding. In addition they only lay about 5-10 eggs, which is not very much in comparison to other turtle species. Slow reproduction like this makes it difficult maintain high populations.
What really surprised me was how fast the tortoise are. I found about 10 to 12 individuals as I hiked around in the mid-day sun. The tortoises where all out sunning themselves just outside their burrow entrance. The burrows were not hard to find. Large mounds of dirt were piled up at the entrance. Often I would see the tortoise a long way off. I would start walking that direction and before I could get very close they would dart down the burrow. And I mean dart! As fast as any jackrabbit, they would zip down their burrows. Honestly when I first saw how fast they ran this it made me laugh out loud.
Some would quickly turn and shoot head first down the burrow. Others would just blast down the hole backwards. The closer I would get to the burrow the further down they would go. This makes perfect sense and I was glad to see that these critters were afraid of people. Tortoises were once gathered for food and as a result have been nearly wiped out. During the depression many tortoises where collected for food. They were called "Hoover chickens". It wasn't until the 1980's did laws pass that stopped the taking, killing or selling of tortoises in Florida. It is listed as a Threatened Species in Florida and Georgia and listed as Endangered Species in Mississippi and South Carolina.
Now with the law on their side and perhaps a little education of the public, the Gopher Tortoise will have a chance to rebound. Either way, I love seeing cool critters such as the Gopher Tortoise. Until next time...
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on Facebook.com and Twitter.com. He can also be contacted via his web page at www.naturemart.com
Column List | Back to top