OK, so you probably won’t see a sea turtle on Florida’s Historic Coast, but it would be hard not to see a gopher tortoise. Use any dune walkover to get to the beach and odds are if you look down, you’ll see one or more large tortoises lounging in the sun. Most people say: “Wow, look at the big turtle!” But they aren’t turtles, they are land tortoises – the only species of tortoises found east of the Mississippi River.
Like sea turtles, they have existed for millions of years. But, unlike sea turtles that travel thousands of miles during their lifetimes, gopher tortoises probably won’t go more a than few hundred feet from their burrows during their 50-year lifetimes. These burrows are usually about 15 feet long and about 7 feet deep – but can sometimes be much longer and deeper. Because their body temperature is determined by their environment, tortoises spend most of their time in the burrow where the temperature remains comfortable on the hottest and coldest days. Of course, they come out to eat and be in the sun – and, during the summer months, to mate.
While sea turtles are laying eggs in nests dug beneath the beach, gopher tortoises are laying eggs beneath the sand in the dunes. Their eggs are also the size of ping-pong balls, but they only lay 9-10 at a time. These usually hatch in October.
Humans are the biggest threat to gopher tortoises. Over development destroys their habitat, their burrows and often kills them directly. They are protected by law and are not to be touched except with one exception – if you can do so safely, it is permissible to move a tortoise from a street or highway as long as you take it to the side of the road where it was headed. Death from cars happens frequently, especially in summer when female tortoises are looking for nesting sites.
Also, DO NOT PUT TORTOISES IN THE OCEAN!
Some people seem to think gopher tortoises are sea turtles and try to “help” them get to the ocean. Tortoises are sometimes seen briefly at or in the very edge of the surf. Scientists think they do this to wash parasites from their scales. These tortoises can’t swim – they will drown within seconds of being placed in the ocean.