Florida's Nature Coast Lifestyle

The Gopher Tortoise- Nature’s Apartment Builders

Sugarmill Woods Florida gopher tortoise

The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is one of five land tortoise species native to North America. It is the only species of land tortoise native to Florida and the southeastern United States.  As the “gopher” name implies, gopher tortoises are extensive burrowers. This means they create large subterranean burrows. Generally, these burrows have a characteristically half-moon shape opening that is round on top and flat on the bottom. 

About the Burrow

A gopher tortoise burrow may span up to 40 feet in length and 12 feet in depth within well drained soils. However, contrary to popular belief, there is only a single entrance /exit hole per burrow. Their burrows maintain a fairly consistent temperature and humidity level throughout the year. For that reason, it provides a refuge for themselves and many other wildlife species from extreme hot and cold weather events, wildfires, and predators.  In fact, more than 360 wildlife species have been documented to utilize gopher tortoise burrows. This includes federal threatened Eastern indigo snakes, state protected Florida pine snakes, Florida mice and gopher frogs. For that reason, many consider the gopher tortoise to be “Nature’s Apartment Builders.”

Gopher Tortoise Life

Gopher tortoises are long life reptiles, with cold blood that take significant time to mature. In the wild, gopher tortoises may live up to 60 years. Moreover, captive gopher tortoises have been documented to live more than 80 years.  Within the state of Florida, tortoises typically take 10-20 years to reach maturity/breeding age. This depends on the availability of food and weather conditions and associated growth rates. Tortoises typically breed in April-June. They may lay 1-2 clutches of eggs per year, with each clutch averaging 6 eggs (3-15 egg typical range). However, the adult tortoises will not protect the eggs and young tortoises. Therefore, they are highly susceptible to predation. Typically fewer than 10% of hatchling tortoises reach sexual maturity.

A Protected Species- Know Before You Build

The gopher tortoise is currently Federally protected as a threatened species within Louisiana, Mississippi, and portions of Alabama. Additionally, within Florida is protected as a state threatened species and regulated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC).   The gopher tortoise and its burrow are legally protected from impacts. In other words, builders must obtain a permit from the FFWCC to capture and relocate tortoises in advance of any development activities. Specifically, any construction that will occur within 25’ of a tortoise burrow.  

Therefore, if you are completing purchasing a property or residential lot, or adding a home addition or pool and suspect or see a gopher tortoise burrow, we recommend contacting a gopher tortoise professional. Before building, have a gopher tortoise agent conduct a formal gopher tortoise burrow survey. This survey will locate all the burrows and determine if they are active on your property. This is the first step in the process and will help determine if you can avoid impacting the tortoise burrow or will need to relocate the tortoise.

About the Author

Michael G. Czerwinski

At Michael G. Czerwinski, P.A. (MGC), we have three FWC licensed authorized gopher tortoise agents with over 40 years of combined gopher tortoise capture and relocation experience. We assist local government agencies, the FDOT, Florida turnpike authority, and countless home owners and developers in assessing, permitting and relocating tortoises and other protected wildlife species over the past thirty years.  Please contact us anytime should you have any questions regarding gopher tortoise protections and permitting options. Call for more info (352) 249-1012 or visit our website.

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