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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.|
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.|
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!|
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.