Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) are urging people to learn more about local wildlife if they want to help. According to a statement, there were at least three reports last month of “well-intentioned good Samaritans” releasing gopher tortoises into the ocean where they drown.
Gopher tortoises frequently build nests in sand dunes close to the locations of sea turtle nests. However, gopher tortoises like most other species of tortoise cannot swim.
FWC officials urge animal lovers to examine the animals more closely and learn to spot the difference between the two types of animals. Gopher tortoises, which live on land, have toes with claws on each toe for digging. Sea turtles spend almost all of their lives in the water and have flippers designed for swimming, with one or two clawed toes used for digging on the sea floor and creating nests for their eggs.
A variety of resources are available online to help people learn the differences between the different types of animals; turtles, terrapins and tortoises. They all look roughly similar at first glance and obviously come from common ancestors but lead very different lives.
“We often have guests calling tortoises turtles and terrapins tortoises, so which is which and what is the difference? They are all reptiles and they all have shells but the basic difference between them is turtles live in water, tortoises live on land and terrapins are a bit of both, but there’s more to it than that. So this week we are taking a look at the differences between these three very cool creatures,” reads the Londolozi web site.
The San Diego Zoo and North Carolina Aquarium web sites also have simple pages devoted to the differences between the animals. The FWC has a photo gallery devoted to gopher tortoises on Flickr.
It is important to find credible sources when researching issues like this. The problem is not helped by articles like this and this. The gopher tortoise is not alone, no tortoise species swims very well.
All five sea turtle species native to Florida and, in fact, nearly all known sea turtle species are listed as endangered or threatened.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the loss of habitat including important nesting grounds, accidental bycatch of turtles by the fishing industry and vessel strikes have all contributed to the current decline in numbers. Under US law, 10 sea turtle species are currently listed as “endangered” and six others are listed as “threatened”.
Many tortoise species are also listed as endangered or threatened. This includes the gopher tortoise which has also seen much of its habitat lost to development or divided by roadways.
The FWC encourages citizens to contact wildlife or animal control officials before attempting to ‘help’ any wild animal.