The largest turtle in the southeast which is exclusively terrestrial, the gopher tortoise can reach up to a foot in length. (Box turtles are about half that size.) They are found in well-drained soils from the lower portions of South Carolina across Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, barely into Louisiana and south into Florida and down much of the peninsula. Besides their association with longleaf pines, they are also found in beach scrub, oak hammocks, and old fields. Because much of the habitat they favor is also desirable for human habitation and development, gopher tortoises face an increasingly dim future outside of those places where a healthy longleaf ecosystem is maintained.
The gopher tortoise is a wonderful digger. With its flattened forelimbs and broad short toenails it can quickly excavate a long oblique burrow, sometimes up to 30 feet in length. Depth of the burrows can vary from a few feet all the way to 12 or 18 feet, depending upon how deep a layer of moist clay might be. There the burrow ends in a den where the tortoise can seek shelter from enemies (mostly man and dogs) and protection from unfavorable weather. The burrows are just a little wider than the length of the tortoise, permitting it to turn around.
These burrows are important to a host of other creatures. Some, known as obligates, live nowhere else. These are mostly arthropods -- insects and spiders. But a number of vertebrate animals frequently share the burrows. While they can be found elsewhere, and consequently are known as commensals, at least one, the gopher frog, is so infrequently found elsewhere that it is even named after the tortoise. Several snakes -- eastern diamondback rattlesnake, pine snake, indigo snake -- often occupy gopher tortoise burrows and the Florida mouse, endemic to the state, is another occupant.
Female gopher tortoises do not lay their eggs in the burrow, but rather in the sand mound at the burrow mouth. When the eggs hatch in a little over two months, the young tortoises are about an inch and a half in length. They soon construct their own burrows, often enlarging that of a mouse or other small creature. If there is sufficient forage in an area, breeding colonies may form. Over time, the number of burrows, active or abandoned, will disproportionately exceed the number of animals in the colony.
Gopher tortoises are mostly herbivorous, usually grazing on grasses, but also on other herbs, fallen leaves, and wild berries and fruits. They have been known to eat insects and carrion, but this apparently occurs very infrequently. Foraging is at times when temperature extremes, both hot and cold, can be best avoided.
In addition to the loss of habitat which has greatly reduced the number of gopher tortoises across their range -- as well as the other animals which depend on their burrows -- until recently they were also hunted for food. Although this has now been largely outlawed, other illegal practices continue to have a deleterious effect, most notably pouring gasoline down holes to drive out snakes.