Tortoises can be observed on all major landmasses in the world except for Australia and Antarctica. The Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is one of four species that lives only in North America. It has a large dark-brown to grayish shell, elephantine limbs and a large grayish-black rounded head. Its shovel-like forefeet are used to excavate burrows that provide shelter.
The Gopher Tortoise can reach lengths of more than 35 centimeters and weigh over 10 kilograms, and there are physical differences between males and females. Female tortoises have a flattened bottom shell, or plastron, and a small tail whereas males exhibit a highly concave plastron and large tail. Male Gopher Tortoises also have two visible scent glands beneath the chin.
The Gopher Tortoise is one of the most important species of the Longleaf Pine ecosystem of the southeastern U.S. Coastal Plain, and the species is critical to the survival of the Eastern Indigo Snake. Gopher Tortoises dig extensive burrows in sandy soil which offer refuge to Eastern Indigo Snakes and over 300 other species, including many species of insects, quail, mice (including the rare Florida mouse), rabbits, burrowing owls, Florida Pine Snakes and the elusive Gopher Frog. These burrows typically reach 15 to 30 feet in length and 6 to 10 feet in depth, although some burrows may be up to 40 feet long. Because of the vast array of cohabitants that use the burrows, the Gopher Tortoise has earned the title of “Keystone Species.”
Gopher Tortoise populations are declining throughout much of the species’ range. The Gopher Tortoise is federally listed as Threatened in western Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and it is currently under review for federal listing in eastern Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
Because of the importance of Gopher Tortoises to the health of the Longleaf Pine ecosystem—and the Eastern Indigo Snake in particular—the Orianne Society has placed a high priority on ensuring the health and well-being of Gopher Tortoise populations on the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (OISP) in Telfair County, Georgia. The OISP is a very significant site with respect to the conservation of Gopher Tortoises, as it protects a series of extensive dry sandhill habitats adjacent to Horse Creek which provide prime Gopher Tortoise habitat.