GOPHER TORTOISe research program
Photo © Jean Hall
An important part of the Marco Island habitat is the Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus Polyphemus), a State-designated Threatened species.
Gopher Tortoises are grouped with land tortoises originating over 60 million years ago. Marco Island was an ideal habitat for this species since it has uplands of sandy soil. With the increased urbanization, tortoises have adapted to living amongst the human population. Other tortoises are relocated off the island due to increased development.
Audubon Western Everglades has partnered with the City of Marco Island to learn more about the Gopher Tortoises on the Island. We have embarked on a comprehensive land study locating where all the burrows are on Marco Island.
This land study will estimate the population of tortoises by surveying all potential properties with ideal habitats and counting any burrows present. This information will aid us in getting more protection for this state-threatened species.
It is illegal to harass or destroy gopher tortoise(s), their egg, or burrows. If you see any type of destruction please call Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission immediately: (888) 404-3922.
gopher tortoise facts
Gophers are a Keystone Species
A keystone species is an organism that helps hold the ecosystem together.
The Gopher Tortoise is a wildlife landlord providing shelter for more than 350 other species including endangered animals such as burrowing owls and indigo snakes. Without them, that ecosystem would collapse.
FAQ / More About Gopher Tortoises
Q. What is their size?
Adults are 8-15in length and 8-15lbs. Females are larger than males. Males have a concave plastron while females have a flat plastron.
Q. What is their lifespan?
They can live 40-60yrs.
Q. Where do they live?
Well-drained, sandy soils found in habitats such as longleaf pine sandhills, oak hammocks, scrub, pine flatwoods, dry prairies, and coastal dunes.
Q. How long are their burrows?
They can be up to 40ft in length and around 6ft deep. Eggs are laid in the front apron of dirt/sand at the entrance of the burrow.
Q. Can Gopher Tortoises swim?
Yes and No. They are a terrestrial reptile with no ability to swim, but they can manage their way through water but not for long periods of time. Please do not mistake a Gopher Tortoise for an aquatic turtle and put it in a canal or the gulf. They will not survive! They need to be on dry land.
The threat to gopher tortoises
The chief threat to gopher tortoises is the loss of their habitat due to the urbanization and development of land. Developers of residential homes typically build in high, dry habitats - exactly the areas where gopher tortoises prefer to make their homes. Female tortoises are especially at risk of road mortality in urban areas, as they search for nesting sites.
"The gopher tortoise was listed as a Species of Special Concern in Florida in 1979 and was reclassified as a State-designated Threatened species in 2007. FWC created its first Gopher Tortoise Management Plan following this reclassification. The goal of the management plan is to “restore and maintain secure, viable populations of gopher tortoises throughout Florida so the species no longer warrants listing.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
ways you can help the gopher tortoises on marco island
You Can Make A Difference!
Save Tortoises on Roads
Report Damaged Burrows
Help Fund Our Research
If you encounter a gopher crossing a busy highway, gently move it to the other side of the road in the direction they were headed.
If you find an injured tortoise, call the Von Arx Wildlife Hospital at (239) 262-2273.
Help be the eyes of protection!
If you find a collapsed burrow or any other suspicious activity, call the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at
Volunteers help us conduct research and inform the public on how to protect gopher tortoises.
We'd love to have you on our volunteer team.
There are multiple ways to donate to our gopher tortoise research, including making a one-time gift, making us your charity for Amazon Smile, and contributing to our Amazon wish list.
Contribute to our work on these initiatives
Help us protect the western everglades with a financial gift.