Hands-on learning awaits...

Scientific Name: Gopherus polyphemus. 

Gopher tortoises live in dry, sandy, upland, and coastal areas of the southeastern United States. Sand hills, roadsides, beaches, coastal dunes, and barrier islands are just some of their natural habitat. They prefer areas with abundant grasses and weeds, and only 20 to 40 percent coverage of trees or shrubs.

The average lifespan of a gopher tortoise is 40 to 60 years, although they have been reported to live 100 or more years. The female lays three to fifteen eggs, which hatch in 80 to 100 days.

The shell of the gopher tortoises acts as armor. It provides physical protection, and its color and shape camouflage the tortoise, thus hiding it from possible predators. The shell is also used in regulation of body temperature. Tortoises are ectothermic, or cold-blooded. The underside of a tortoise shell is called the plastron. The upper part of the shell is the carapace. The backbone of the tortoise is embedded within the upper shell.

These tortoises eat many different plants, which they seek out using their eyesight or sense of smell. Their diet includes grasses, wild lettuce, hawkweed, ragweed, daises, clover, blackberry, wild grape, and poison ivy.

Gopher tortoises are known for their burrows. These burrows act as their home, and individual tortoises can have more the one burrow at a time. Burrows can be up to ten feet deep and 40 feet long, and is as wide as the length of the tortoise that built it. The burrows provide homes for other creatures, including frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, birds, rodents, small mammals, spiders, and many invertebrates. Quail have been known to use gopher tortoise burrows on cold nights.

The gopher tortoise is known as a keystone species. Their burrows are important to the tortoises’ habitat by providing shelter to over 300 different creatures. The gopher tortoise and their burrows are protected by law. SciWorks is home to a gopher tortoise named Digger, who was donated in July 1983.