I mentioned my in-laws’ home in Port Charlotte, FL in my last column. The wildlife in that area is incredible, but the most common sight is the gopher turtles. The dens they dig are large, and they dig a lot of them. In fact, their abandoned dens may be the most useful part of the gopher turtles, because at least 360 other species use them for shelter.   

The gopher turtle is actually a tortoise. Turtles seem to live in or around water, while tortoises live strictly on land. It is hard to imagine a more perfectly designed digging machine than the gopher tortoise. They have large, sharp claws that plow through the soft, sandy soil of Florida likes it’s nothing. Before you can develop land in Florida, any gopher tortoise must be relocated. This is done in cooperation with Florida Fish and Wildlife. The current price for relocation is $1,300 per tortoise.

The gopher tortoise is one of five North American tortoise species and is the only tortoise found east of the Mississippi River. A number of other species prey upon the gopher tortoise, including raccoons, which are the primary predators of eggs and hatchlings. Gray foxes, striped skunks, armadillos, dogs and snakes also prey upon the tortoise. Fire ants have also been known to prey upon hatchlings.

The gopher tortoise can live between 40-60 years in the wild, but captive tortoises can live over 90 years. The gopher tortoise is not yet endangered but is listed as threatened in the state of Florida. It is illegal to touch or interfere with a gopher tortoise or its den. Biologists have discovered dens as deep as 10 feet and as long as 40 feet. Gopher tortoises feed mainly on vegetation. They are non-aggressive and will not bite in self-defense. They just tuck their heads in and cover their face with their large front legs. Reproductive maturity usually takes 10-15 years.