Celebrating SWFL’s favorite shelled reptile on Gopher Tortoise Day

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

Gopher Tortoise Day has been recognized in Florida on April 10 since 2016 to increase awareness of and appreciation for the protected species. What is the history of Florida’s only native tortoise species, and where does it stand now?

As cars speed by on Southwest Florida’s roads, something not known for its speed could be strolling through dry, grassy areas or creeping underground: the gopher tortoise.

“It’s a very special species in Florida because it’s a keystone species, which means that many other animals depend upon the survival of the gopher tortoise in order for them to survive,” said Chris Lechowicz, director of wildlife and habitat at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

They get the name because of the burrows they dig. But Lechowicz says these homes aren’t just for the gopher tortoises.

“Many other animals also occupied that burrow,” Lechowicz said.

Up to 400 different animals, in fact.

WINK News searched through the upland, grassy areas the tortoises love but didn’t have any luck finding one to wish a happy holiday. Nonetheless, Lechowicz says it’s not rare to see one if you’re in the right habitat.

“They’re actually not very hard to find,” Lechowicz said. “It’s just the way things have been going the last few decades, those areas are becoming less.”

Recognized as a threatened species in Florida, the gopher tortoise population has declined in the Sunshine State.

“The largest threat to the gopher tortoises by far is development,” Lechowicz said. “They only live in upland areas. And, unfortunately, that’s where everybody wants to build their homes and where people want to make all their businesses. So they’re in competition with everyone else.”

Despite Hurricane Ian’s large storm surge, SCCF’s gopher tortoise survey in January showed most of the creatures did OK.

If you see a gopher tortoise and it is not in immediate danger, leave it alone. If it’s crossing the road—and it’s safe for you to do so—you may pick the tortoise up and place it on the side of the road in the direction it was heading.

Remember: Never put tortoises in water.

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