Gopher Tortoises in Okefenokee

June 28, 2013 at 5:23 am (Georgia, National Wildlife Refuges (US Fish & Wildlife), Nature, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Photography, Wildlife) ()

"Smiling" Gopher Tortoise, Okefenokee NWR

“Smiling” Gopher Tortoise, Okefenokee NWR

If you could watch a gopher tortoise making its deliberate way across the sun-baked landscape of the Okefenokee pine uplands, what musical score would you choose to accompany its travels?  Something light and delicate?  Or slow and plodding?

This land turtle can rev up the engines when it wants to, but even when evading a nosy human it is likely to snatch a bite of whatever tasty salad item grows between it and the burrow it is ostensibly returning to for safety.

They can be so single-minded in their quest for that escape hatch that they will practically walk over your feet if that’s the most direct route!  Other times, however, they just sit unfazed by your presence.

Gopher Tortoise, Okefenokee NWR

Gopher Tortoise, Okefenokee NWR

Gopher Tortoises in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge are frequently seen along the entrance road, and a few have even tunneled under the road itself.  Using their powerful front feet, they can shovel the soft soil into a tunnel ten feet deep and 40 feet long.  The sand apron around a female’s hole may shelter a clutch of 3 to 15 eggs this time of year.  They incubate from 80 to 100 days, depending on nest temperature.  The hatchlings that survive predation by raccoons, foxes, feral hogs, and other beasties may even spend the winter in the mother’s burrow, though she does not really take care of them in the conventional sense.

Gopher Tortoise burrow under the entrance road at Okefenokee NWR

Gopher Tortoise burrow under the entrance road at Okefenokee NWR

Gopher tortoises may actually dig several burrows, although each only has one entrance.  Not only do they protect the tortoise from summer heat, winter cold, and the wildfires that often run through the landscape, they also provide shelter for more than 300 other animals.  Evidently it does not mind sharing its roomy abode with the likes of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake or a gopher frog, or the endangered eastern indigo snake.

This turtle depends upon the open pine savannahs in a longleaf pine forest to provide enough sun to incubate the eggs, and to nourish the hundreds of grasses, flowers, and herbs they feast on.   Because only three percent of the original longleaf pine habitat remains, gopher tortoise populations have likewise dwindled.  It is listed as threatened in Louisiana, Mississippi, and western Alabama, and may be listed as such for the remaining populations as well.   Development and road mortality also have taken their toll.   In addition, more than 80 percent of suitable habitat is in private or corporate ownership.

So have you decided on the musical score to accompany a short video of the gopher tortoise?  A dirge of sadness, perhaps?  Or maybe a hopeful  concerto on its way to a victorious crescendo?  I decided to use a composition my son Ryan McIntyre did, as the stepped up beat is an almost comical contrast to the slow pace of the tortoise – even as it rushes off.  And besides, I didn’t have to pay him royalties!

Cindy McIntyre’s Website

Photos and text copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre

Feel free to reblog



  1. said,

    gopher john by will mclean…

  2. Desert Tortoise | Cindy McIntyre's Blog said,

    […] are in the same genus as the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) I’ve photographed in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia, but these guys are adapted […]

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