Gopher-It!: Gopher Tortoise Hatchlings at Tree Hill

Tree Hill Nature Center has exciting news: we found gopher tortoise hatchlings on site! The gopher tortoise is a vital part of north Florida’s unique ecosystem. Finding the gopher tortoise hatchlings is an encouraging discovery, as the number of gopher tortoises living in the wild is limited and the species continues to face serious threats from habitat destruction.

The gopher tortoise is a land turtle that lives exclusively in the Southeastern part of the United States, from Florida to the very southern tip of South Carolina and west into the southern portions of Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. As a result of their limited range and limited reproductive habits, as well as their specific habitat requirements, the gopher tortoise is listed as a threatened species. In our area, the gopher tortoise is classified by the State as a threatened animal. In other states, it is listed as a federally endangered animal. Both threatened and endangered animals are at risk of becoming extinct, but the difference is the extent of the risk. In the case of the gopher tortoise, anyone looking to move a tortoise must obtain a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. No one is allowed to handle or move a gopher tortoise, and no one is allowed to disturb the burrow of a gopher tortoise.

gopher-tortoise-hatchlingThe burrows built by gopher tortoises are impressive. Some burrows have been found to be over 50 feet long and more than 20 feet deep! However, the most important part of the gopher tortoise burrow is that they offer habitat and refuge to a large number of other animals. This service is what makes the gopher tortoise a keystone species, meaning other animals rely heavily on it. Without the gopher tortoise, the health and survival of many other animals would be severely compromised. In the burrow you might find the endangered indigo snake, the gopher frog, or an eastern diamondback rattlesnake.

At Tree Hill, we take the role as stewards to the gopher tortoise very seriously, helping to educate the public about what it means that they are a keystone species and a threatened species. Yet, part of what has caused the gopher tortoise to be listed as threatened is their reproductive habits. The gopher tortoise takes about ten years to reach maturity. They lay no more than one clutch of eggs per year, and their eggs are highly susceptible to predation. As a result, the gopher tortoise has a difficult time replenishing its numbers against a shrinking and increasingly compromised habitat.

Please keep an eye out for gopher tortoise burrows and call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (the North Central division can be reached at (850)921-1029) if you spot them and feel they need to be relocated. Remember, it is illegal to move them without a permit. Come by Tree Hill in Arlington to check out the Center and explore the trails. Open Monday-Saturday from 8am to 4:30pm. You can learn more by calling 724-4646 or visiting our website, treehill.org.

About Katie Salz

april, 2022

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