The Gopher Tortoise may look like a reptile that can swim well, and some tortoises and turtles do have that athletic capability.
In the case of the Gopher Tortoise, however, the opposite is true. Florida wildlife experts are working hard to educate residents: the worst place they can put a Gopher Tortoise, which seems to have wandered too far from home, is a body of water.
That's because Gopher Tortoises cannot swim and will typically drown if they find themselves in water, especially if that body of water is the ocean and especially if they're young hatchlings.
Officials at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said there have been at least three incidents in March in which a Gopher Tortoise has been placed in the ocean by residents who believed they were helping the tortoises get back to a familiar habitat.
In fact, the tortoise spends its life in dunes. The proximity to water is what tricks people into thinking the tortoise somehow got "beached" and needs help getting back home. Oftentimes, people confuse the tortoise with sea turtles, say wildlife officials, who note all five species of Florida sea turtles are protected by federal and state laws.
Sea turtles, however, have flippers with one or two claws on each front flipper. The Gopher Tortoise features toes with claws on each toe.
A Gopher Tortoise lives upland throughout Florida, digging deep burrows for shelter in pastures, yards, forests and dune areas. They eat low-growing plants. Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law.
That means any Gopher Tortoise on land that needs to be cleared or developed must be relocated, and those in charge of the relocation must get a permit before interacting with the reptile.
Florida enacted a Gopher Tortoise Management Plan in 2007 when the reptile was classified as threatened. The plan was updated in 2012 and incentives were put in place to ensure that tortoise relocation was conducted properly.
The reptile has been regulated by Florida since 1972 and fully protected since 1988. The population, however, has been on a steady decline. The name was derived from the reptile's skill at digging big deep burrows with their front legs. Just like turtles, the underside of a male Gopher Tortoise is concave, which helps distinguish them from female counterparts. The males also boast longer tails, and their shells extend past their chin.