Yesterday on our walk JiaJia and I met a gopher tortoise, one of the oldest living species. Originating some 60 million years ago, they can live up to 150 years.
I’ve always had a lot of respect for these creatures and it’s becoming increasingly rare to encounter one in the wild. We stared at each other for what seemed like quite a while and I’m so happy that he came out of his shell and decided not to retreat into his hole. JiaJia found him fascinating but I had to restrain him. The gopher tortoise is unique in that it is one of the few tortoises to actually make large burrows. What is with all these burrowing animals i’m suddingly meeting?
In Florida gopher tortoises are on the Endangered Species List, categorized as a Threatened Species. The gopher tortoise is a very important part of the local ecology. As in any food web, if you start taking certain flora or fauna out of the equation, then you can adversely affect the survival of that ecosystem. The gopher tortoise is especially important because the burrows they dig also provide homes for other animals, such as indigo snakes, gopher frogs, mice, foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and other invertebrates. Their burrows are home to about 250 species of animals at one time or another.
The turtle (or tortoise) is an old, sacred figure in Native American symbolism as it represents Mother Earth. To each tribe, the turtle might depict something slightly different but with a recurring theme of creation, protection & longevity. Is it a coincidence that only a few days before this I bought some lucky Feng Shui charms in hand carved jade that symbolize of all things Protection?
Okay, here’s where it gets confusing. The gopher tortoise is a turtle as all tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. Here’s the difference:
A turtle lives in the water (oceans, lakes, rivers) primarily so has webbed front feet and streamlined legs for swimming. The only time a turtle comes on land is to lay eggs.
A tortoise lives on the land primarily so has feet with long claws for digging and no webbing between the toes. Tortoise eggs are laid in a nest and when they hatch, the baby turtles move to the mother’s burrow. Tortoises tend to stay in one area for life.