It was an ordinary Wednesday afternoon at Sanibel Sea School – a sunny, late winter day in the midst of high season. The teachers were bustling around the campus preparing for class and cleaning up the backyard when one of them heard something a bit strange behind the building. Curious about the rustling coming from the leaf litter, they went to investigate the noise. They discovered that the odd noise was our resident female gopher tortoise plodding around her burrow, and she was not alone! Our teachers were surprised when they saw two tortoises near the burrow, because this species can be quite territorial - they immediately postulated that it must be a mating pair!
Peering through the surfboard racks with binoculars in hand, the teachers watched as the male tortoise tried to pursue the female. Many tortoises use a series of head-bobs and swings to try to get the female’s attention, but in this case the female was unimpressed. Even with no reaction from the female, the male continued to swing his head and approach her a little quicker with every step. After a few courtship shell-nips, the male decided to try his luck at passing on his genes. Alas, the male was a little over-ambitious on his first attempt because the female suddenly charged and flipped the male over onto his carapace – what a show this was turning out to be!
Usually, we try not to interfere with nature, but when gopher tortoises are flipped upside down, they are unable to right themselves and can become stranded. It's a good thing we have a herpetologist on staff, because he was able to gently right the male gopher tortoise.
This was good news for the persistent male. He immediately continued to pursue the female with some more head-bobs and the two successfully mated – right before our eyes!
In 2007, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission listed gopher tortoises as a threatened species because of their drastic population decline - these tortoises are protected on Sanibel and even have their own management plan to ensure stable populations in the future.
At Sanibel Sea School, we have a protected gopher tortoise area to allow a safe place for these tortoises to burrow and plenty of native vegetation to eat. You can help out too by landscaping your backyard with gopher tortoise-friendly vegetation – check out the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (http://www.sccf.org/) for some great native plant suggestions!