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Georgia State Reptile

Gopher Tortoise

Georgia State Reptile: Gopher Tortoise

(Gopherus polyphemus)

Adopted in 1989

Georgia designated the endangered gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) as the official state reptile in 1989. Gopher Tortoise the gopher tortoise is one of the oldest living species native to Georgia. The gopher tortoise belongs to a group of land tortoises that originated in North America 60 million years ago.

This tortoise digs burrows up to 40 feet wide and 10 feet deep providing year-round shelter from predators and inclement weather for more than three dozen other animal species.

The gopher tortoise population is in decline and recent studies indicate that by the year 2000 it may not exist outside of protected areas.

Georgia State Reptile: Gopher Tortoise

Georgia State Reptile: Gopher Tortoise

The gopher tortoise (gopherus polyphemus) is a member of the class reptilia. Its carapace (top of shell) is grayish-brown and unmarked in adults, while its plastron (bottom of shell), legs, head and neck are golden-yellow.

Gopher tortoises are the state reptile in Georgia and a federally threatened species. Some grow to weight up to fifteen pounds and can live up to a hundred years. They are amazing burrowers, with sturdy, shovel-like front legs and powerful muscles to plow through sand and soil. They will dig burrows that range from just six feet long to one recorded case of fifty feet long! Gopher Tortoises are especially important in their environment because they are an ecosystem engineer. Their burrows are not only a home to the tortoises, but also a variety of snakes, mammals, birds, amphibians and invertebrates. It's estimated that around 250 species of animal use gopher tortoise burrows at some point!

Habitat

Georgia State Reptile: Gopher Tortoise

Gopher tortoises dig burrows - typically ranging in size from 20 to 30 feet long and from six to eight feet deep - with their shovel-like front legs. Biologists have found some burrows as big as 40 feet long and 10 feet deep! The burrows are found in dry places such as sandhills, flatwoods, prairies and coastal dunes or in human-made environments such as pastures, grassy roadsides and old fields. The gopher tortoise is a keystone species, meaning its extinction would result in measurable changes to the ecosystem in which it occurs. Specifically, other animals, such as gopher frogs, several species of snakes and several small mammals, depend on tortoise burrows. For the gopher tortoise to thrive, the animal generally needs three things: well-drained sandy soil (for digging burrows), plenty of low plant growth (for food) and open, sunny areas (for nesting and basking).

Range

The gopher tortoise is found along the dry sand ridges of the southeastern Coastal Plain. In Florida, tortoises are found in the panhandle and along the southeastern coast. Tortoises are also found in the southern parts of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Breeding

Gopher tortoises usually mate during April and May. Shortly after mating, the female lays between three and 15 eggs, either in a sandy mound in front of her burrow or a nearby sunny place. The eggs mature and hatch from 70 to 100 days later.

The hatchlings spend much of their time in their mother's burrow until they're old enough to dig their own. They don't reach maturity until they are between 10 and 15 years old, when their shells are about 9 inches long.

Feeding

Gopher tortoises usually eat low-growing plants found in bright sunshine, primarily grasses such as wiregrass. Some tortoises have been known to eat gopher apples, blackberries and other fruits. Gopher tortoises will also scavenge and are opportunistic feeders, occasionally feeding on dead animals or excrement.

 Georgia Law

The law designating the gopher tortoise as the official Georgia state reptile is found in the Georgia Code, Title 50, Chapter 3, Section 50-3-63.

TITLE 50 - STATE GOVERNMENT
CHAPTER 3 - STATE FLAG, SEAL, AND OTHER SYMBOLS
ARTICLE 3 - OTHER STATE SYMBOLS
§ 50-3-63 - Official reptile
O.C.G.A. 50-3-63 (2010)
50-3-63. Official reptile

The gopher tortoise is designated as the official Georgia state reptile.

Taxonomic Hierarchy: Gopher Tortoise

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
    Suborder: Cryptodira
Superfamily: Testudinoidea
    Family: Testudinidae
Genus: Gopherus
Species: G. polyphemus

State Reptiles
State Reptiles
Twenty-six U.S. states have named an official state reptile. As with other state symbols, states compare admirable aspects of the reptile and of the state, within designating statutes. Schoolchildren often start campaigns promoting their favorite reptile to encourage state legislators to enact it as a state symbol. Many secretaries of state maintain educational web pages that describe the state reptile.
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