Gopher Tortoise Day: Celebrate Alabama’s majestic tortoise species this weekend
Behold the majestic gopher tortoise, king of all eastern U.S. land-based tortoises, not least because it is the only land-based tortoise east of the Mississippi River. The tortoise’s future is far from certain, however, as it is listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and protected throughout its range.
April 10 is Gopher Tortoise Day in Alabama, so read on for some fun facts about this « keystone species » of the southern longleaf pine forest ecosystem and some events around the state to celebrate the state’s favorite non-aquatic shelled reptile. Slideshow by Dennis Pillion, photos courtesy Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources unless otherwise noted.
The gopher tortoise isn’t the biggest reptile on the block, averaging about 9 to 15 inches in size, but they can have a big impact on their preferred longleaf pine ecosystems.
The gopher tortoise’s claw-like arms are perfect for digging, and the tortoise can hollow out underground burrows that are 10 feet deep and 40 feet long.
Those convenient burrows provide habitat for a lot more than just the tortoises. As many as 350 other species have been found living in gopher tortoise burrows, according to the ADCNR, including dozens of insects, amphibians, and other reptiles, including snakes.
That’s why the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species of its preferred longleaf pine habitat. Without the tortoises, lots of other animals wouldn’t have homes.
One of the animals that make homes in tortoise burrows are Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, like these, and the Eastern indigo snake, which is federally protected.
One of the major threats to gopher tortoises — aside from the loss of longleaf forest habitat –is « gassing, » or when humans pour gasoline or other harmful materials down tortoise burrows to flush out snakes during rattlesnake roundups. This practice is now illegal in Alabama.
Another major threat to the gopher tortoise is human interaction. Many turtles are struck by cars trying to cross roads, and some are taken by humans for consumption or the pet trade.
If you see a tortoise crossing the road, you are permitted to carry the animal to the other side, in the direction it was heading and release it. Handling the turtles in other ways throughout its range is prohibited by federal or state law.
Gopher tortoises can live 40-60 years in the wild and don’t reach sexual maturity until the age of 10. That means it takes a while to replenish a depleted population.
Gopher tortoises are herbivores, plodding along through sparse longleaf forest, foraging grasses, prickly pear cactus, berries, legumes, clover, cat brier, palmetto berries and pine needles. The tortoises get most of their water from these plants or dew and rarely need to drink.
Gopher tortoise hatchlings are born a bright yellow color and grow darker as they mature. The juvenile tortoise above is beginning to show his adult coloration. (Photo by Randy Browning, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Gopher tortoises are mostly found in longleaf pine forests, which are more spread out than shortleaf species. The tortoises depend on low-lying grasses and plants growing between the trees for food and water. Densely packed pine stands are not good habitat for the turtle.
Gopher tortoises need longleafs and longleafs need fire to stay healthy. Natural fires kept the forests appropriately thinned for thousands of years. Today, managed longleaf forests need periodic controlled burns to clear out the undergrowth and keep the forests, and all the creatures who live there, healthy.
The gopher tortoise is found in about the lower third of Alabama, as well as parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
Gopher Tortoise Day is officially Monday April 10, but several organizations throughout the state are hosting tortoise-themed events this weekend to mark the occasion.
Here’s a rundown of events around the state:
The Birmingham Zoo — Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Guests will be able to see live animal demonstrations and gopher tortoise encounters, ornament painting, coloring pages and nature play activities. This event is free for members and included in general admission.
Landmark Park, Dothan — Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.Visitors will get to meet the park’s very own resident gopher tortoise, participate in tortoise crafts and activities, and learn ways to help conserve their habitat.