A gopher tortoise strolling across a road or through a backyard or field is a common sight during spring in Florida. Yet as tortoises become increasingly active this time of year, they are vulnerable to being struck by vehicles and injured or killed.
Don't forget to look out for these slow-moving reptiles with their bony-plated shells and elephantine legs. They leave their burrows in search of green plants to eat and a tortoise to become their mate. From now through May, females will lay eggs the size of ping-pong balls in the sandy apron outside their burrows.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) encourages drivers to slow down on highways to help protect the state's gopher tortoises. If a gopher tortoise is crossing the road, it is OK to pick it up and move it to safety - but keep it pointed in the direction it was heading and do not put this terrestrial animal into water.
People also can help by downloading and using a new smartphone app to report to the FWC when and where they spot gopher tortoises. The free "Florida gopher tortoise" app recently became available on iPhone and Android. When users of the app take a photograph of a tortoise or its burrow, the photo and its GPS coordinates will be sent automatically to the FWC.
App-generated data collected by citizen scientists will help guide conservation of this threatened species. Biological information and a quiz testing the user's knowledge of the only tortoise east of the Mississippi River also are included in the app.
The FWC's Gopher Tortoise Management Plan spells out goals and actions to protect the tortoises, their burrows sheltering hundreds of other species and their habitat. Prescribed burning is critical to maintaining the sandy, open fields and forests, and the growth of soft-stemmed plants that tortoises need to survive. To access the management plan, go to MyFWC.com/Wildlife and select "Managed Species."
People can report injured or dead gopher tortoises to the FWC by calling (850) 921-1030 during weekdays or by contacting the Wildlife Alert hotline at (888) 404-3922. Harming a gopher tortoise, its burrows or eggs is against the law.
For "A guide to living with gopher tortoises," go to MyFWC.com/GopherTortoise and click on "Education Corner." To find "Safe roads for people and gopher tortoises," go to MyFWC.com/GopherTortoise and select: "How you can help."