Figure 1. A Gopher tortoise wondering why the heck I’m taking pictures of it.

How long do they live? The lifespan of Gopher tortoises fall into the “we just don’t know” category. There’s multiple estimates that place the average lifespan over 50 years, but that’s not what The Moirai is about. We want to know how long these animals can live when you take away habitat destruction, pollution, and traffic fatalities. Thanks to Gus, the almost 95 year old gopher tortoise that lives in the Museum of Natural History, we know that they can live a really long time [1].

Where are they found?  Gopher tortoises enjoy life in flatwoods, prairie, and scrub areas throughout all of Florida and small areas of the bordering southern and southeastern states [2]. Even though most Gopher tortoises are found in Florida, they are the official state reptile of Georgia [3]. By the way, they don’t live in water. They don’t even like water other than to have a drink once in a while. So, if you’re trying to move a tortoise off of the road then do not place it in water. If you’re not sure what it is, then place it on the other side of the road (the way it was facing) and leave it alone. But most importantly just leave them alone (it’s the law).

What do they eat? If it was up to Gus up there he’d be eating snacks from the curators all of the time, but he does enjoy a healthy diet of organic fruits and vegetables. Gopher tortoises in the wild eat mostly grass, but they will sometimes dine on fruits and other plants, such as flowers and pine needles [4].

What do they look like? Gopher tortoises average about 12 pounds, but one found in 2015 on Sanibel Island in Florida was a massive 28 pounds [5]. Check out Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 2. I promise you they are a lot faster than they look.

How do they reproduce? Males reach sexual maturity between 9 and 18 years of age, while females reach sexual maturity between 9 and 21 years old. They breed once per year and lay between 5 and 9 eggs. Unfortunately, due to high predation on eggs, almost 90% of the eggs are eaten within the first few weeks [5].

How do scientists know how old they are? They don’t. Estimates are flaky in the reptile world and the only way to truly know the age of a tortoise is to know when it hatched, such as the case of Gus up there. So, how many centenarian tortoises are running around out there in Florida?

So what are we lacking? A clear method of knowing the biological age of an organism (without harming it). I know there has to be genomic information out there about these tortoises, but I did not find anything on the NCBI. Do they exhibit negligible senescence like many tortoises and turtles?

Conservation status: They are vulnerable as listed by the IUCN. Keep in mind that Gopher tortoises are keystone species and are super valuable to the environment, plus they are adorable.

If you’d like to contribute your knowledge or if you can answer any questions about this long-lived species, please contact me!

  1. Museum of Natural History. Gus. Accessed 6/04/2017. https://naturalhistory.novascotia.ca/what-see-do/gus
  2. Diemer, J. E. 1986. The ecology and management of the gopher tortoise in the southeastern United States. Herpetologica 42: 125-133.
  3. Gopher tortoise.  Georgia Wildlife.com  Accessed 6/04/2017.  http://www.georgiawildlife.com/sites/default/files/uploads/wildlife/nongame/pdf/accounts/reptiles/gopherus_polyphemus.pdf
  4. Animal Diversity.org. Gopher tortoise. Accessed 6/04/2017  http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Gopherus_polyphemus/#food_habits
  5. Gopher tortoise on Sanibel could be largest on record. Count on 2 First. Accessed 6/04/2017      http://www.nbc-2.com/story/28224450/gopher-tortoise-on-sanibel-could-be-largest-on-record