"Gophers" are native to droughty, deep sand ridges from South Carolina through Florida and west to Louisiana. Open, savanna-like expanses of longleaf pine and scrub oak are the tortoises' preferred habitat, but they will readily colonize less pristine places like fencerows, pastures, and field edges. Like all good grazers, they contentedly consume the grasses, legumes, and fleshy fruits within their short reach, dispersing the seeds with their droppings.
Perfectly adapted for digging into sandy soil, gophers possess massive front feet which end in five flattened toenails. By scraping ahead and pulling quickly back, they send the sand flying in rhythmic spurts. Their rear legs are elephantine–round and rubbery, ending in flat, claw-equipped pads–providing both stability and strength. With this powerful earth-moving equipment, gophers can tunnel forty feet, their holes slanting twelve feet down, with a convenient turnaround at the end.
Often described in human terms as a mixture of gentleness, unconcern, stubbornness, and intelligence, gophers spend the majority of their lives relaxing in their burrows, perhaps in quiet contemplation. Here they enjoy protection from fire, predators (such as feral dogs), desiccation, and temperature extremes. Other species also find the burrows inviting, with one report noting an assortment of sixty vertebrate species and three hundred invertebrates sharing these accommodations. Common bedfellows are gopher frogs, eastern indigo snakes, and eastern diamondback rattlers.
While gophers spend most of the winter months holed up in burrows, their activity increases with spring temperatures. By summer their mid-morning and mid-afternoon feeding forays prove taxing enough to prompt a much-needed siesta in-between. Foraging activities start and end at the burrow, with the gophers trudging along a well-worn circular or elliptical path, never venturing too far afield; in fact, 95 percent of all feeding takes place within thirty yards of' home."
This home is not permanent, however, and adults pick up and move close together in colonies during the breeding season, April to June. A dominance hierarchy soon develops, with the largest males (10 to 15 inches long) and breeding females monopolizing the colony's center. Courtship consists of a male "calling" at a female's burrow entrance, bobbing his head to better waft his scent, then gently biting her when she emerges. (Because the two sexes are outwardly identical, and females are not known to bite, this may serve as gender recognition behavior.) An interested female then pivots to present a rear approach, and mounting quickly follows.
Clutch size averages seven eggs, each one about the size of a quarter, deposited in the sandy mound at the burrow's entrance or in another sunny location. Incubation lasts about one hundred days, although most eggs never hatch due to predation by raccoons, foxes, opossums, and similar varmints.
Humans have also devised ways of preying on gophers, even when the gopher seemingly is tucked safely underground. The "pulling" of gopher is a time-honored tradition, the height of its popularity occurring during the Depression, when a "Hoover chicken" meant meat on the table for many Southern families. A gopher puller threads a long, flexible wire into a burrow and "fishes" until the wire's terminal hook catches under an animal's lower shell. While the tortoise resists--desperately digging its forelimbs into the tunnel walls and emitting an indignant hiss–the puller undertakes a series of vigorous, protracted tugs, finally dragging his still-protesting trophy to daylight. The gopher is butchered with a hammer and knife, and its tough, scrawny carcass is usually stewed.
Human predation, when combined with habitat fragmentation, modern intensive forestry practices, and highway mortality, has produced alarming declines in gopher numbers-an estimated 80 percent--over the past one hundred years. The decline is most alarming west of the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers, leading the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1987 to list these populations as threatened. An elaborate (and expensive) protection plan has been proposed.
However it is accomplished, protection from us humans is essential for the continued survival of these trusting, mild-mannered creatures. In a very real way, their "hole" existence depends on us.