This ancient species of land-dwelling turtle is the only North American tortoise that occurs east of the Mississippi River. These long-living, slow-growing reptiles eat low-growing grasses and legumes as well as seasonal fruits. The gopher tortoise can be identified by its large, shovel-like forelimbs adapted for digging deep burrows. The species is highly adapted to tolerate fire, finding safety in sandy burrows far underground during fire events and fire is vital to maintaining the sparse cover of native gopher tortoise habitat. These gentle creatures are considered a keystone species because they share their deep burrows with over 350 other species including owls, mice, snakes, rabbits, frogs, and insects in a mutualistic interspecies interaction known as commensalism.
Gopher tortoises occupy upland habitats throughout Florida, preferring sparse, well-drained sandy areas.
The gopher tortoise is likely to be impacted by climate change primarily through alteration and loss of habitat. Rising temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns and altered fire regimes are likely to alter community structure in critical gopher tortoise habitat. Spreading invasive species in a changing climate could also drive out the native plants on which the gopher tortoise depends, resulting in increasingly fragmented habitat. The gopher tortoise also faces many threats not related to climate change at present, most notably predation by humans and other species and habitat loss resulting from human development.
More information about general climate impacts to species in Florida.
The overall vulnerability level was based on the following assessment(s):
The primary factors contributing to vulnerability of the gopher tortoise are minimal habitat protection, alterations to biotic interactions and disturbance regimes, and synergies with development.