Cape Coral’s Terrific Tunnelers
Imagine that you must protect yourself from the elements, and to do so, you have to dig a tunnel in the ground that is as wide as your body, 15 – 30 feet long, and 6 feet deep at the end. Not only is this activity vital to your protection, but many others depend on your tunneling ability for their own shelter, food and growth. You can’t use any machinery, not even a shovel. You do it with your bare hands. Most of us would say, “forget it”. But for the gopher tortoise, the tunneling is all in a day’s work.
The gopher tortoise ( gopherus poly- phemus) averages – 11 inches long, but can attain lengths of 15 inches. They can weigh up to 15 pounds, but typically weigh about 8 to 10 pounds.Gopher tortoises are found throughout Florida and prefer sandy, well drained upland areas, they eat grasses, bean family plants, fruits and grass -like plants.
The gopher tortoise’s large, flattened forelimbs have special ligaments that stiffen making it easier for these incredible animals to dig large tunnel:s, some more than 30 feet long. These tunnels, called burrows, provide shelter from extreme heat or cold, maintaining a temperature of 70 – 80 degrees in the summer, and 60 -70 degrees in the winter. The tortoise’s burrow and the excavated sand around the entrance are used by many other invertebrate and vertebrate species to varying degrees. The loss of gopher tortoises habitat means the loss of habitat for up to 300 “commensal” ( harmonious co – existence) species.
In Cape Coral, there can be scattered enclaves of one to five tortoise burrows on vacant lots, as well as a few areas containing ten to forty burrows. The gopher tortoise’s burrow can be recognized by it’s half moon shape and the mound of sand often 3-6 feet wide at the entrance. The burrows of young gopher tortoises or hatchlings are not so large. A year after hatching, gopher tortoises usually have a burrow 3-4 feet deep.
Gopher tortoises may live more than 40 years, but do not reach reproductive maturity until 10 – 20 years of age. Mating occurs April to June, with females digging their nest cavity in the mouth of the burrow only once per year. The mean nest size is about six eggs. The incubation period varies from approximately 80 to 110 days.
The gopher tortoise was well established in Florida thousands of years before human existence. Human consumption and encroachment, resulting in loss and degradation of habitat has contributed substantially to their population decline – about 80 percent over the last one hundred years. In addition, the gopher tortoise does not reach reproductive maturity until ten twenty years of age, their eggs often succumb to predation, and many are plagued by a life- threatening respiratory disease. All these factors have contributed to the need for the gopher tortoises to be on the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Protected Species List. Out of every 100 eggs laid, it is estimated that only 1-3 survive to the adult breeding stage
Though much of the upland habitats needed for tortoises have been developed on Sanibel, a few upland areas containing high densities of tortoises remain as conservation lands. These populations cannot be counted on however to ensure long term survival of gopher tortoises on Sanibel. Other small populations located in community conservation easements and backyards will be needed to best ensure long-term viability. The gopher tortoise is a facinating and gentle creature whose impotance in our local ecosystem cannot be overstated. Never chase or harass a gopher tortoise. This stressses the animal and can interfere with it foraging activities. Gopher tortoises are land animals. Please don’t put them into a body of water where they can drown. If helping one safely across the road, stop your car and wait for it to cross or place it on the side it was heading toward.
For injuried tortoises, call 472-3644 (Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife)
If you see a malicious destruction or harassment of Gopher Tortoises call Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-3922