GOPHER TORTOISE (Gopherus polyphemus)

The gopher tortoise is a land turtle, usually between 6 and 15 inches long. It is dark brown with a yellowish undershell. A tortoise’s front legs are strong and shovel-like, great for digging burrows. It likes to live in sandy places between forests and grasslands, and prefers dry, well-drained areas. The gopher tortoise digs burrows that are 10 to 50 feet long, and sometimes have more than one tunnel. When the tortoise is not underground at home, it might be warming up in the sun or looking for food. The tortoise usually eats grasses and weeds, but can also eat fruits and mushrooms. Tortoise burrows provide homes for other animals, including snakes, frogs, owls, and rodents. The burrows are very important during forest fires, because they give these animals a safe place to hide. In Florida, the tortoise is a Species of Special Concern. This means that there are not many left because we build houses on their sandy habitats, and many are hit by cars. Also, human trash attracts raccoons, and these animals eat many of the tortoises’ ping-pong ball shaped eggs. Raccoons also eat the newly hatched babies. It is against the law to keep a tortoise as a pet or to harass a wild tortoise. The best thing to do is to leave them alone.

MUD TURTLE (Kinosternon subrubrum)

Yellow Mud Turtle

The Florida mud turtle is green to dark brown with a smooth, patternless shell. They are small turtles, only 3 to 5 inches long, and eat tadpoles, worms, insects, and plants. They live in fresh or partly salty water, and like muddy, shallow waters with lots of plants. These turtles are most active during the warm, wet summer months. If their pond dries up, they will burrow into the mud or walk overland to find another pond. Many times when they are out looking for someplace to live, they are hit by cars. In the wintertime, they may bury themselves under the mud or under leaves in the forest to stay warm. Mud turtles will lay 1 to 6 eggs in a hole they dig in sand or under grass and leaves. Sometimes, they will even lay their eggs in an alligator nest or muskrat hole.

DIAMONDBACK TERRAPIN (Malaclemys terrapin)

The Diamondback Terrapin is a salt marsh turtle and lives only in brackish water. It lives in the coastal waters from Massachusetts down to Florida, and around to Texas. There are seven types of Diamondback Terrapin, and it is Malaclemys terrapin centrata that lives here in northeast Florida. The turtle gets its name from the diamond-shaped designs on its shell. The terrapin is a medium-sized turtle with a greenish brown shell. Some have white skin with dark spots, but others are a plain green or brown. The girls are 6 to 9 inches long with short tails, and the boys are 4 to 6 inches in length, with long tails. The terrapins eat fish, mollusks, and insects. Until the 1930’s, these turtles were thought to be a food delicacy, and were hunted almost to extinction. Today, not many people eat them, but they are in danger from unattended or lost crab traps. They get into the traps, and unless they are set free, they drown. It is also hard for them to find nesting areas, because many beaches are destroyed or have too many houses on them.


Behler, John L. and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1992.

Conant, Roger and Joseph T. Collins. Reptiles and Amphibians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1991

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