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Between a Tortoise and a Turtle

| April 1, 2012

You say tortoise, I say turtle.

You say tortoise, I say turtle.

Living on the Atlantic Coast, we often hear about sea turtles while another turtle gets second billing. Living a life mostly out of human view, gopher tortoises have inhabited Florida and a few other southern states for millions of years. Yet most people only see them as they crawl slowly across roadways or, like their armadillo friends, as unlucky roadkill by a driver unable to avoid them.

frank gromling flagler live coastal view columnistGopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus for my scientific friends) are turtles, but because they live on land they are classified as tortoises. Turtles, like sea turtles, live in water. So, a tortoise is a turtle but a turtle is not a tortoise unless it lives on land. See, science is not all that hard to understand. Even I get this. I think.

So, now that we know when a tortoise is a tortoise, let’s look at some of the other distinctions between sea turtles and gopher tortoises. Most of these differences also apply to the two other tortoises (desert tortoise and Texas tortoise) found in the United States.

Both turtles and tortoises have bodies enclosed by shells; the upper shell is the carapace and the lower shell is the plastron. They are connected at the ends and, although the head and feet can extend outward, the body cannot be removed from the shell.

To make the differences between turtles and tortoises clearer, I’ve taken a few major differences and put them into a chart (see below the video at the foot of the article).

There is a lot more information to share about this reptile, which is on the Florida Endangered Species List, but I’ll leave that for those who are interested enough to search the Internet or come out to Turtle Fest on Saturday, April 14th in Flagler Beach. Members of the Volusia/Flagler Turtle Patrol will answer all of your questions about sea turtles and tortoises.

If you want to get up close and personal with a gopher tortoise, watch Sir David Attenborough as he follows a Florida native into its burrow and finds other critters hanging out (see below).

Attenborough points out that the gopher tortoise provides an incredible benefit to more than three hundred different species which share the long and deep burrows made by the tortoises. The ability to avoid predators, seek cooler temperatures, and be safe during wildfires helps other species to survive in the wild.

Before I wrap up, let me invite you to a talk I am doing about the importance of the oceans. I am presenting “Protect Oceans, Protect Life” today (Sunday) at 1 p.m. in Daytona Beach as part of the annual Gandhi-King Season for Nonviolence. Information about this program is available at 386-672-6382.

Frank Gromling is the owner of Ocean Publishing in Flagler Beach. Reach him by email here.

Gopher TortoiseSea Turtle
Lifespan Upwards of 100 years20-40 years
Habitat Burrows dug into sandOcean, may range thousands of miles
ShellFlat, thick, hardDome-shaped, not as hard as tortoise
LimbsShort, sturdy, bent; front legs flat & broad, back legs like elephant’sWebbed feet, long claws
Age of maturity12-15 years20-25 years
DietGrasses, berries, fruits Based on species,
may eat meat, plants, or both
Birth6-12 eggs deposited in shallow nest near burrow; 80-90 days to hatch; hatchlings may stay with mother for first winter 80-120 eggs deposited in pit dug in sand; mother returns to ocean; 50-70 days to
hatch; hatchlings move immediately to ocean
Color Tan-brown-gray Different for each
species, including black, green, brown
Adult size9-16 inches long; 20-30 poundsDifferent for each
20-30 pounds species; 3-6 feet;100-2000 pounds
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7 Responses for “Between a Tortoise and a Turtle”

  1. Geezer Butler says:

    What an excellent article. I feel awful when these creatures get run over.
    Just yesterday, I helped a big gopher tortoise cross Old Kings Road.
    Did you know that they urinate as a self-defense mechanism when you pick them up?


    Currently the endangered species here in Flagler County get little to no respect.

    Example our slow moving manatees still have to take second place to the large high powered boats which travel the ICW, boats that cause blunt force trauma and come complete with props that often slice them from head to tail. Speed zones to protect these creatures fell short of what was needed to better protect them. ( A special thanks to Mayor Netts and his committee for that one )

    Here in the city of Flagler Beach our local sea turtles may soon be placed in even greater danger as a few people push for bonfires on the beach simply in order to cook marsh mellows. Strange in the fact that the vast majority of beach communities throughout Florida are united in their desire to fully protect their returning turtles ?

    Last but not least NO protection at all is offered to the lowly old gopher tortoise pictured above, which by the way has inhabited Florida for sixty million years. Instead, these creatures low on the list of priorities and with their very survival at stake are often buried alive in their burrows by large bull dozers clear cutting dune lots along A1A etc. ( cars and dozers are currently taking an ever growing number of gophers as our local population increases )

    This failure to give adequate protection continues to be an environmental disgrace, one which our local elected officials apparently have decided to ignore. Of course a new house, or an office building means more money and that’s what is all important, no time or effort must be wasted to remove and relocate these unique endangered creatures.

    Not one person in the county that I am aware of, is even charged with checking the building sites for gophers prior to clearing them,which often includes removal of every blade of grass, shrub and of course wild flowers the favorite diet of gopher.

    As a result of this abuse, our gophers are often sealed in an underground tomb to die a very slow and painful death, with a concrete slab or driveway being poured over them thereby preventing any chance of escape.

    A very sad commentary on those who run our county / cities and human race in general wouldn’t you say ?

    • Actually, you can rest easy because both Florida and Flagler County have protections of the gopher tortoise in place. From the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) web site ( “In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as Threatened. Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law. Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from the FWC before capturing and relocating tortoises.”

      From Flagler County’s web site (, the Planning and Zoning Department page, comes this statement: “Other responsibilities include:
      • Performing environmental protection preservation activities, including gopher tortoise relocation, wetland permitting, manatee protection, and related functions.”

    • Anonymous says:

      Give me time to do some research on the local scene to get some answers to your questions. Having laws and having enforcement sometimes can be two greatly different things. Let’s see what we can find.

  3. Arthur Woosley says:

    With all due respect Mr.Gromling the information you stated above sounds very nice wish it were so, unfortunately however these protections have yet to arrive in the hands of the local builders and dozer operators. I ride a bicycle about eight to ten miles a day here in Flagler Beach and have seen just recently a number of building lots scraped clean of every blade of grass, a couple of those lots I know for sure had active burrows on them.

    You can have as many protections built in to the system as we want, however they are not worth a hill of beans if not acted upon. Please be assured that no official check of all building lots that I am aware of is being performed in this county at the present time regarding gopher protection . So I would suggest to you that you may wish to go to or call all the government offices in the county and ask them just a few questions.

    Questions such as these to name a few, is there any written information currently supplied to builder about gophers prior to the lot clearing ? Other than the builder, who actually checks and keeps records on these lots before and or after they are cleared, what official records if any do they keep as to what is found on each lot, and was any removal performed, who did the relocation etc.etc.

    I venture to say, you will find they do little to nothing in this area, regardless of the protections in place that you mention above. So in fact, anyone interested and concerned about protecting these special forgotten creatures cannot rest easy as you say. While these creatures may only be threatened, they are still being buried alive out there, and this will only increase now as more building is taking place. Thank you

  4. Dick Ricardi says:

    Unfortunately, State and Federal staturtes for the protection of gopher tortoises, are left to local authorities for application and enforcement and that is exactly where the problem lies. State, Fed and County may be very sincere about protection of all natural resources but all to frequently local authorities are either ignorant of the laws or just done care enough to make the effort. In these cases natural resources are destroyed and the State authorities dont even hear about it unless citizens file a complaint.
    Informed citizens are needed to provide oversite to local authorities. What is needed is a citizenry determined to defend programs of the state and expect strict enforcement locally..Without them, Florida’s extraodinary initiatives to protect its natural resources and wild species will surely continue to fail.

  5. Joanne Kittner says:

    I live in Hudson Fl. On the west coast and my back yard seam to be a breeding ground for Gopher tortoises.
    I have two large Doberman punchers that are having a nervous breakdown because these little fellows have invaded their space. I don’t know if the tortoises will harm my dogs or my dogs will harm them so I have been very careful to keep them apart so far. Is their someway to relocate them so I never have to find out if either will be harmed. Please help! Thank you. 215-407-0704
    Joanne Kittner

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