Gopher tortoises on St Catherine’s Island, GA

I’m spending ten or so days teaching on St Catherine’s Island, a coastal barrier island south of Savannah, GA. The island is swarming with interesting creatures; I’ll highlight just one in this post, with more to follow.

The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is the only “true tortoise” (Family Testudinidae) in eastern North America (the other shelled critters here are all turtles of one kind or another, even the terrestrial box turtle whose kinship is much closer to pond turtles than it is to tortoises). Gopher tortoises dig very long burrows in which they spend most of their time. Some burrows are four or five feet deep and twenty feet long. These subterranean homes help the animals escape the worst of the heat and the cold. They also provide a safe space when fires roar through the open piney forests that is the preferred habitat of the species. These fires help to maintain the savannah-like structure of the forest, but they are obviously also dangerous to resident animals.

The population of gopher tortoises on St Catherine’s came from the mainland. They were moved here when a commercial development destroyed their habitat. Since then, the tortoises here have thrived and bred. They live in a large pasture that is maintained as an open savannah. From the surface, all that is visible are the sand piles around the entrance to each burrow. It is seriously hot here at the moment, so the animals usually stay below in the cool.

Gopher tortoise burrow with apron of sand. The females lay their eggs in this apron.

The hole is tortoise-shaped…

Bess Harris, a graduate student at the University of Georgia, is on the island studying the tortoises. She kindly took some time out of her afternoon to talk about her work and show us some of the animals that she was fitting with radio-transmitters.

This one is eight years old. She/he has many more decades of life to come, hopefully.

The tortoises were surprisingly fast (Aesop never saw a gopher tortoise, it seems) and had to be grabbed and retrieved as they paddled away.

Radio transmitter.

The front legs are flattened: great shovels.

Not only flattened, but strong. A full grown tortoise (about 20 lbs) can out-pull a human hand. This one is only half grown and inflicted no bruises.

Beautiful patterns in the keratin shell.

6 thoughts on “Gopher tortoises on St Catherine’s Island, GA

  1. Debbie Blinder Welch

    I love this article. It reminds me of a story with another creature, the Sea Turtle. I worked in a state park in Florida and had the opportunity to go on a sea turtle walk one night. We witnessed a Loggerhead come on shore and dig her hole and lay her eggs. We all had to be very quiet and respectful for her to complete her task. It was one of the most incredible experiences to watch. She was so majestic. I also remember getting to help and hold the babies that hatched later on. The light pollution was a major issue on the coastline for the little turtles to find their way to the sea. This story brings back memories of these adventures in Florida. Thank you.

  2. Debbie Blinder Welch

    They are pretty amazing…that would be awesome if you get to do that…Please write about it if you can (and pics). I would love to go to this St. Catherine’s Island someday. I have it on my bucket list haha!! Many places to discover for sure. Enjoy your adventures!

  3. hayden

    Oh, how I miss the time I spent on st cats. I loved my summers spent there, on ossabaw, and the other islands. There’s nothing like the barrier island ecosystem. You are so lucky to get to teach there every year! Which section are you teaching now? I can’t believe its been 9 years since my summer there. Glad the gopher torts are doing well. When we were at the Jones center, they were so abundant I kinda forgot how rare they were. Once when small mammal trapping I came across one that was only about an inch long and still soft, just newly hatched. We would also routinely catch “biscuits” in the Sherman traps.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Dr. Keith-Lucas retired this year and I’m teaching the last section now. I’ve been enjoying getting to know the place better and seeing some sea/shore animals (marbled godwits!). The G torts are great. A baby one sounds great! We may be able to help with a loggerhead hatch soon — I know you worked with them on Ossabaw a few years ago. Amazing creatures.


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