Monday, April 7, 2014

#83 The Gopher Tortoise (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Gopher Tortoise
The fascinating and stately gopher tortoise is #83 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Please click here to see the full list as it is unveiled.

Gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) - or "gophers" as they are called locally - favor dry sandy lands and the piney woods of Jackson County are among their favorite habitats. My dad always said you could tell a Yankee from a Native Floridian by their definition of the word "gopher." A Yankee, he noted, thought that gophers had fur and were mammals. Native Floridians knew, of course, that gophers were tortoises!

A gopher tortoise out for a stroll.
Gophers are tortoises, not turtles. Both are reptiles, but turtles live in the water and tortoises live on dry land.

They live in burrows in the ground, some of which can be impressive in size. I've never been to the bottom of a gopher tortoise burrow, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission indicates they average around 7 feet deep and 15 feet long, although burrows as long as 40 feet have been found.

A gopher tortoise heads for its burrow.
You can tell if a gopher tortoise is living in a burrow by looking at the shape of the opening. If the burrow entrance is half-moon in shape, the odds are that a gopher tortoise still lives there. If the burrow entrance is round, that usually means that the tortoise has moved on and an armadillo has taken up residence.

Be aware that abandoned gopher tortoise burrows are favorite homes for rattlesnakes.

During the War Between the States (or Civil War), soldiers from the Florida Panhandle were called "Gophers" because they liked to eat gopher tortoises so much. Private Wade H. Richardson of the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry noted that the term was "derisive."

In fact, gopher tortoises were hunted almost to extinction during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Once considered a delicacy, they were shipped out commercially to restaurants all over the country aboard steamboats from ports including Old Parramore in Jackson County and Vernon in Washington County. Vernon, in fact, was once believed to be the largest gopher shipping point in the world. They remained important commercially until the dwindling population forced restaurants to switch to sea turtles for their soups and stews.

Headed underground in a cloud of dust!
The tortoises were favorites of sailors and sea captains during the 1700s and 1800s because they could be kept alive in the holds of ships and pulled out whenever the cook needed fresh meat! They remained popular for this use until refrigeration became commonplace on ocean-going vessels.

When the Great Depression swept across Florida in 1929, gopher tortoises became to residents of rural Jackson County what possums were to the residents of Wausau in Washington County. Nicknamed "Hoover Chickens" after President Herbert Hoover, they provided meat for hungry families.

A threatened species today, gopher tortoises still live in all 67 of Florida's counties. They usually graze within 150 feet of their burrows, which are common in pastures and pine woods. Controlled burns are vital to their survival, because they help assure that tender grasses and plants are available for them to eat. It is illegal to kill them or disturb their burrows.

Good places to see them include Three Rivers State Park, Florida Caverns State Park, the Upper Chipola WMA north of Marianna and Apalachee WMA north of Sneads.

If you would like to learn more about gopher tortoises, FWC has an excellent brochure available for download:  A Guide to Living with Gopher Tortoises.


Anonymous said...

Dale, thank you for stirring up yet another memory from my upbringing in and around NW Florida and Jackson County. It has been so long since I lived in that area, I had forgotten all about the Gophers. I use to see them all over the place and they were fun to have as temporary pets, too!

Jackie B.

Dale Cox said...

Jackie, They drive my poor old dog crazy. I don't let him bother them so he sits and cries each time he sees one stroll through the yard!

Anonymous said...

I went "gopher pulling" with my dad several times back in the late '50s and early '60s. He loved to eat them. Me, not so much, but I loved going with him.

Bruce M.