By Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor, Dermatology, Nova Southeastern University
The beauty of Florida is that given its vast array of ecosystems, you can readily go from wetlands to a dry landscape. If you go to an upland habitat—a sandhill community with longleaf pine, turkey oak, and wiregrass—you may find a creature that is about 10-11 inches long, weighing about 9-10 pounds if adult.
You can expect this wonderful creature to have a life expectancy in the wild between forty to sixty years, although there are reports it may live more than one hundred and fifty years. It has a stubby head, short tail, and rounded tan to dark gray shell.
The powerful forelimbs are tipped with stiff, flattened claws that act as shovels to excavate burrows of about fifteen feet long and six feet deep. A burrow discovered in 1972 measured more than forty-five feet in length.
Within the burrow, the temperature remains relatively constant throughout the year: 60° – 70° F in winter and 70°- 80° F in summer. The creature prefers a burrow that is humid because it is quite susceptible to dehydration. Certain biologists have noted that this creature may migrate to burrows in moister habitats during the dry winter months. You may have guessed by now I am describing one of my favorite creatures, the gopher tortoise.
Gopher tortoises are creatures of habit and spend most of their lives in or around their burrow and create paths through vegetation as they regularly visit the same foraging areas. Gopher tortoises are primarily vegetarians and primarily munch on wiregrass, wild legumes, fallen pine needles, and a variety of wild fruits and berries.
As you read the landscape, take time to observe the gopher tortoise. More than one gopher tortoise may share a burrow and more than 300 species of animals have been identified as “burrow commensals”—creatures that use tortoise burrows to varying degrees, including eastern indigo snakes, Florida mice, and gopher frogs.
Burrow commensals gravitate to gopher tortoise burrows for a variety of reasons. Gopher frogs often feed on insects and spiders that live in the burrows. Tortoise burrows provide winter shelter and nesting for the indigo snake. The Florida mouse lives year-round in a den it builds along the burrow shaft.
When ground fires burn through sandhill or other pine habitats, burrows provide a safe haven for tortoises and other wildlife. Two scarab beetles are obligate
burrow commensals because they apparently live nowhere other than in active gopher tortoise burrows. The mound of sand at the mouth of a burrow provides benefits to plants—the bare soil is important to the establishment of seedlings including longleaf pine. As the gopher tortoise maneuvers on its paths to feeding sites, open spaces are created for seedling growth. Given their broad herbivorous diet, gopher tortoises also help maintain plant diversity of plants near their burrows by dispersing seeds.
One place with dozens of gopher tortoise burrows is Circle B Bar Reserve. An amazing location to explore and read the landscape, the reserve is a former working ranch and modifications on the property and along Lake Hancock can be seen. See https://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/recreation/circle-b-bar-reserve.
The reserve is named after a cattle ranch that once existed on this property. Circle B Bar Reserve was jointly acquired by the Polk County Environmental Lands Program and the District in an effort to protect the floodplain of the lake and to save the Banana Creek marsh system. Although much of the property had previously been converted to pasture, in 2005 and 2006 restoration projects were completed to restore much of the original hydrologic function of the lands. Circle B is now home to some of the most impressive bird and animal activity in Florida and is a magnet for nature photographers that meander on the trails that include freshwater marsh, oak hammock, hardwood swamp, and the lakeshore.
All photos by Dr. Rob Norman
Get out and explore the Great Florida Outdoors!
Photo caption: Gopher tortoise