Populations of gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
are scattered throughout the Gulf Coastal Plain with most being found in north-central
Florida and southern Georgia. Limited numbers of tortoises are found in southeastern
Louisiana, the southern third of Mississippi and Alabama.
Gopher tortoises, or “gophers” as they are commonly called, live in dry, sandy habitats such as longleaf pine-oak sandhills and sand pine scrub. Gophers are strong diggers and excavate crescent shaped burrows that are often 10 feet deep and over 30 feet in length. These burrows protect the gopher from extreme temperatures during the summer and winter as well as from fires. Gopher burrows are also important to numerous vertebrates and invertebrates. Over 360 species are known to use gopher tortoise burrows. Some of the animals that use these burrows include the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, black pine snake, armadillo, rabbit, opossum, indigo snake and gopher frogs.
Gopher tortoises feed on a wide variety of plants with bunch grasses and broadleaf grasses comprising the majority of their diet. However, various legumes as well as blackberries, saw palmetto berries, pawpaws and other fruits are readily consumed.
Conditions needed for healthy tortoise populations include well-drained soils for burrows and sufficient low-growing food plants with open canopies for sunning and nesting. Fire is critical for maintaining open habitat and nesting and for the promotion of low-growing forage plants utilized by the gopher tortoise. In the absence of fire, canopies would quickly close and render the habitat unsuitable.
Habitat loss and fragmentation pose serious threats to the continued survival of the tortoise. Gopher habitat has been plowed for agricultural crops, converted to loblolly and slash pine plantations and further fragmented by the many facets of urban sprawl. Gopher tortoise numbers have declined in Louisiana and Mississippi to the extent that it is listed as a federally threatened species in both states.
Hurricane Katrina significantly harmed their habitat and the restoration efforts that were being conducted.