Gopher Tortoise


Gopherus polyphemus

Order: Testudines

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • For small tortoises a tub or trough at least 2 feet by 3 feet, as the tortoise grows it needs larger tub. The sides of the tub need to be taller than the tortoise is long to prevent climbing
  • Since providing a burrow is impracticle for a program animal you should provide a hide box.
  • Provide a basking lamp and UV light if housed indoors.
  • Temperature, Humidity, & Lighting:
    • Temperature:
    • Humidity:
    • Lighting:
  • Substrate: shavings or mulch

Diet Requirements

  • High fiber, high calcium, low protein. Primarily leafy greens, grasses and assorted weeds (provided they are free of pesticides and herbicides), small amounts of veggies and fruits. Calcium can be added.
  • About 80 percent of their diet (after the hatchling size) is made up of grasses. Most yard grasses like bahia, centipede, St. Augustine, and blue grass are a good source of food for the gopher tortoise and many other tortoises. Grasses should be supplemented with just about every green leafy vegetable that is available. Gopher tortoises also like beans, corn and most fruits. Gopher tortoises love dandelions, narrow and broad leaf plantains, and many other weeds of the yard and garden.

Veterinary Concerns

  • Susceptible to upper respiratory tract disease caused by Mycoplasma sp. While treatable it is essentialy incurable so care must be taken to avoid exposing a “clean” tortoise to one that has been exposed.
  • Beaks can become overgrown. Veterinary staff and/or keepers can use a drimmel to trim beaks to appropriate length.

Notes on Enrichment & Training


Colony or Breeding Management

Notes species is housed or managed socially or for breeding purposes.

Individual Identification

Dimorphism or practiced ways to individually mark species (such as those in colonies, like giant millipedes).

Programmatic Information


Temperature Guidelines



    • Brandywine Zoo: small reptiles travel in a Coleman “Party Stacker” type cooler that has been amended with extra ventilation holes on the lid (with a wood-burning tool). The cooler is lined with newspaper and, during cool weather (under 65°F), supplemental heat is provided with a hot water bottle (wrapped in newspaper)

    cooler     hot water bottle

Tips on Presentation

  • If space is available and safe, allow the tortoise to walk around on the ground. This is great exercise for the animal and allows visitors to see how they move and that they are faster than one might think. Make sure to stay within arm’s reach of the animal. At Zoo Atlanta, visitors are not allowed to touch when the animal is on the ground.

Touching Techniques

Tips on Handling

  • Hold with one hand on either side of the shell. Watch hand placement to avoid being scratched or pinched.
  • Some animals get very squirmy when held up for too long. Watch for “swimming” motion.

Potential Messaging

  • Native species with a disappearing habitat.
  • Symbiosis with pine snakes and burrow-sharing
  • Good example of why you shouldn’t get a tortoise as a pet. In general, animals seen at the zoo do not make good pets. Most have specialized dietary, veterinary, housing, and social needs that are difficult or impossible for even dedicated pet owners to meet. Always ensure that your future pet has not been taken from the wild. Capture of wild animals for the pet trade has significantly damaged the survival prospects of species such as sloths, tamanduas, and many parrots. Captured animals are typically mistreated by profit-motivated traffickers and dealers, resulting in many animal deaths; well-meaning animal lovers may feel like they are rescuing animals by purchasing them but are really perpetuating the cruelty. In addition, many exotic pets are released by their owners when they become too dangerous or demanding, often with devastating effects on local ecosystems. Animals that should never be kept as pets include all bats, primates, and exotic carnivores. Birds, fish, and reptiles have specialized needs, are frequently wild-caught, and damage the local environment if released; guests should be advised to educate themselves and proceed with caution. Domestic dogs and cats are almost always the best option! Many deserving animals are available for adoption at animal shelters.

Acquisition Information

A federal permit is required to possess, study or relocate a gopher tortoise

Comments from the Rating System

  • Maryland Zoo in Baltimore: Great educational content.
  • Zoo America: Upper respiratory infections can be a problem.
  • Zoo Atlanta: Keeper and visitor favorite. Visitors love seeing the tortoise walk around.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Southeastern US from South Carolina to Florida, west to Southeastern Texas and Arkansas. Found in a wide variety of habitats which have deep sandy soil. Most commonly found in dry sand ridges dominated by pine and scrub growth. The presence of regular, rapidly moving fires is important for maintaining the appropriate habitat for this species.

Physical Description

Carapace length about 9.5 inches although a few individuals may grow to 12 inches. This tortoise has a low, oval carapace with a flat top. Hatchlings are yellowish, but darken to brown or black as they mature. Males can be distinguished by the concave shape of the plastron.

Life Cycle

Mating occurs in early spring. Eggs are laid about 60 days after mating and hatch after 80-100 days of incubation. Gender is determined by incubation temperature. Average clutch is 5-8 eggs, but older females can lay as many as 25.


Gopher tortoises do not drink from sources of standing water. When it rains, the tortoise will use a front leg to “dam” water and drink from it.

Threats and Conservation Status

This is a threatened species, primarily due to habitat destruction.
A federal permit is required to possess, study or relocate a gopher tortoise

Did you know…

  • The gopher tortoise is a keystone species. Over 250 other species rely on the burrow of the gopher tortoise for shelter.
  • The gopher tortoise is the Georgia state reptile.
  • The gopher tortoise is only one of three species of tortoises that are true burrowers with the Bolson’s tortoise and the African spurred tortoise being the others.
  • Gopher tortoise burrow can be more than 50 feet long, but most are 15 to 18 feet long.




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