Pity the poor Florida gopher tortoise - he gets no respect.
For centuries, the gentle reptile has wanted nothing more than to wander through scrubland to munch on grass and berries by day and sleep in a hole in the ground by night. They get their gopher name from their habit of making their homes by digging burrows in the sandy soil. The burrows can be up to 15 feet long, serving as nature's apartment buildings by offering shelter to more than 300 other species, including burrowing owls, Florida mice, rabbits and the eastern indigo snake.
Older than the dinosaurs, gopher tortoises were once common throughout the Southeast, thriving in the scrub sandhills, oak hammocks and wiregrass flatwoods. In recent decades, increasing development has resulted in the destruction of gopher tortoise habitat, resulting in hundreds of thousands of tortoise deaths.
The gopher tortoise is a protected species in Florida. As of 2007, they were pronounced "threatened" and can no longer be killed by landowners prior to or during development, but must be relocated. They are currently on a waiting list, with 250 other species, for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act.
The gopher tortoise is the only tortoise found east of the Mississippi River. Its diet consists of wiregrass, prickly pear cactus, blackberries, and paw-paws. They are 9 to 11 inches long and can live from 40 to 60 years.
In the Tampa Bay area, as in other areas seeing population increase, gopher tortoise habitat is being destroyed to make way for commercial development such as shopping centers, subdivisions, roads and parking lots. A report issued in 2006 by a panel of state wildlife experts estimated that the population of gopher tortoises in Florida had declined by more than half in the past 60 to 90 years.
So what should you do if you see a gopher tortoise trying to cross the road (which they frequently do)? Be a good gopher friend and help him get to the other side. He needs all the help he can get.