Dune Dwellers, Amelia Island’s Gopher Tortoises

The threatened GOPHER TORTOISE has a presence in all 67 Florida counties, dwelling in dunes and upland habitat “including forests, pastures and yards.”

Gopher Tortoise, Amelia Island Florida Image By AmeliaIslandLiving.com Magazine
Amelia Island Gopher Tortoise (Photo: AmeliaIslandLiving.com)

Gopher tortoises receive far less fanfare than Amelia Island’s sea turtles, yet they exist year round in Florida near the nesting beaches of the transient seafarers. These tortoises can be spotted along Amelia Island’s coastal dunes. Sometimes they wander down to beach itself and walk right into the ocean. Besides dwelling in the dunes by the seaside, Gopher tortoises can be found living in Florida’s upland habitat throughout the state, “including forests, pastures and yards,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

Interesting Facts About The Gopher Tortoise:

— They are ancient terrestrial turtles, with ancestors traced back in time 60 million years.

— Their life span is 40 to 60 years when living in the wild.

— Gopher tortoise burrows can be 40-plus feet long, but average around 15 feet.

— A “keystone species,” their burrows provide shelter to an estimated 350-plus species (but not all at the same time).

Learn more by watching the gopher tortoise YouTube video below about this threatened species.

Don’t Try To “Rescue” Tortoises

Occasionally gopher tortoises are right on the beachfront near water’s edge (even walking on their own into the Atlantic Ocean). What causes them to trek to the water? It’s puzzling, the answer apparently elusive in the scientific community. These tortoises are not built for the sea and easily get flipped over by waves.

Well-intentioned (but uninformed) beach goers sometimes mistake a gopher tortoise for a sea turtle, pick them up on the shore and place them into the ocean.

How To Identify a Gopher Tortoise

Gopher tortoises can be up to around 15 inches long, so they are much smaller than the most common type of sea turtle visiting Amelia Island (the loggerheads average around 36 inches). According to the FWC, “To distinguish gopher tortoises from sea turtles, simply inspect their limbs from a distance. Gopher tortoises have toes, with claws on each toe. Sea turtles have flippers with only one or two claws present on each foreflipper.”

Where To Observe A Gopher Tortoise?

On Amelia Island, dune walkovers are a prime observation area to spot a gopher tortoise, such as within Fort Clinch State Park, Peter’s Point Park and Burney Park at American Beach, the island’s larger public areas where the dunes are more extensive. While walking along the elevated boardwalks crossing the dunes, careful observation may reveal the burrows and/or gopher tortoises out meandering through the dunes and munching on vegetation.

There are marked gopher tortoise areas near Fernandina’s Main Beach lawn adjacent to Tarpon Avenue. Signs on the west side of Tarpon Avenue alert the public to this sensitive gopher tortoise area where burrows exist. When on the sidewalk along the Main Beach lawn, the tortoises can sometimes be spotted across Tarpon in this sandy area (see Google Map below).

According to FWC:

In an effort to help protect the species, Florida has state laws in place restricting what property owners can do with gopher tortoises on their land/lot. Gopher tortoises are protected by Chapter 68A – 27.003, of Florida Administrative Code. If gopher tortoises are on a Florida property, a “relocation permit [is required] before disturbing the burrows. A disturbance includes any type of work within 25 feet of a gopher tortoise burrow,” according to the FWCC.

Wildlife Alert Hotline

If you find a dead or distressed gopher tortoise or witness someone disturbing tortoise burrows, call the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s 24-hour Wildlife Alert Number at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).

Learn lots more about the gopher tortoise at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.