Officially designated as a state endangered species, the estimated 2,000
burrow-digging reptiles that call South Carolina home are barely holding on
in native habitat on state lands, including two heritage preserves and one
The population at the 1,395-acre Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve in
Aiken County is small and is targeted for recovery and enhancement by the
S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The preserve is the
northernmost known location of the large, terrestrial tortoises, which have
stumpy, elephantine hind feet and spade-like front legs.
DNR Web site to find out more about the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage
Preserve and or
the Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve.
The tortoise population at Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve in Jasper
County appears to be stable, possibly increasing due to habitat management.
The gopher tortoise is a keystone species in the longleaf pine sandhills
community because it provides shelter for many other species of animals in
its 30-foot long underground burrows, which are about 10 to 15 feet deep.
The gopher tortoise can attain lengths of 15 inches, can weigh up to 15
pounds and can live 60 to 70 years.
Gopher tortoises occur in upland habitats throughout the coastal plain of
the Southeast, from South Carolina west into Louisiana, with most being
found in north-central Florida and southern Georgia. Their numbers have
declined range-wide, but have been severely reduced at the western and
northern part of their range. Some researchers have projected that unless
something is done to reverse this decline, this species may soon be found
only in protected areas.
To be suitable for gopher tortoises, the habitat must have well-drained
sandy soils for digging burrows, herbaceous food plants, and open sunny
areas for nesting and basking. Periodic natural fires play an important
role in maintaining tortoise habitat by opening up the canopy and promoting
growth of herbaceous food plants. If natural fires are suppressed, habitats
may become unsuitable for tortoises.
According to DNR herpetologist Steve Bennett, South Carolina is at an
advantage over some states like Florida that have much larger tortoise
populations. "We can use prescribed fire to maintain tortoise habitat,"
Bennett said, "because the tortoise range here mostly is in more rural
areas and not faced with development."
Why is the gopher tortoise in trouble throughout its range?
● Habitat loss: Habitat alteration and land development pose the most
serious threat to the continued survival of the gopher tortoise.
● Road mortality: Many tortoises are killed each year by automobiles.
● Tortoises as food: Tortoises were a reliable source of food during the
Depression, when in some areas there was little else to eat other than
"Hoover chickens." Currently, tortoise harvesting is illegal in every state
where tortoises are found.
Bennett said much more needs to be done to ensure the survival of the
gopher tortoise such as collecting data on habitat, learning more about
burrow conditions and distribution as well as demographic data like what
are the numbers for a minimally viable population.
-Written by Brett Witt-