2016-05-01 / Community

Discover Lovers Key

By Katie Moses
Park Services Specialist

Have you ever wondered about the differences between a turtle, a terrapin and a tortoise? A tortoise lives only on land; its feet are typically round and stumpy for walking the ground. A terrapin lives both on land and in water, however, will always live near water. A turtle spends most of its life in the water; its feet are typically webbed for swimming.

Lovers Key State Park has some special residents, the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). This is the only tortoise that exists east of the Mississippi River. Sadly, habitat loss is the most serious threat to these amazing tortoises. They have been placed on the Threatened Species List for the state of Florida.

Gopher tortoises dig burrows as large as 40 feet in length and 10 feet in depth. Looking at the size of the burrow can help you determine the size of the tortoise. They dig their burrows as wide as their bodies, to ensure they can turn around anywhere within their burrows. The gopher tortoises typically require three conditions in order to thrive: well-drained, sandy soils for digging; sufficient low plants for food (grasses and flowers); and open, sunny areas for nests. Thankfully, Lovers Key provides an excellent habitat meeting all three criteria.

Lovers Key provides an excellent habitat for the gopher tortoise. 
Pam Jones-Morton Lovers Key provides an excellent habitat for the gopher tortoise. Pam Jones-Morton Gopher tortoises take a long time to reach maturity (10 to 15 years) and grow to nine inches in length. Mating season is short, beginning in April and ending in May. Several weeks later, females will dig nests either in front of their burrows or nearby and lay three to 15 eggs. Depending on the weather, the eggs hatch 70 to 90 days later.

The hatchlings live in the mother’s burrow or dig small ones nearby. If they survive the numerous predators (pretty much any animal big enough to eat them), they can live in excess of 60 years and weigh up to 30 pounds.

These intriguing tortoises are also considered a keystone species and are important to several other local animal residents. More than 350 species of animals have been found to use their burrows. There are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding these wonderful creatures. Fortunately for conservation efforts made across the Southeast, research is continuing.

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