Gopher Tortoise

Gopherus polyphemus (State Status: S2; imperiled)


Gopher Tortoises are pine savanna specialists that utilize self-made burrows in sandy soil. They are large when fully grown at up to 14 inches in length (Guyer et al., 2015). They are easily identifiable as the only tortoise native to Mississippi. Its range is the southeast part of the state, generally found in the pine belt. If you have trouble identifying them, look for a very rounded head and large digging limbs (large Gulf Coast Box Turtles are often mistaken for Gopher Tortoises to the untrained eye). Their burrows accommodate a handful of other threatened species in the state, such as Coachwhips, Black Pinesnakes, and Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes. Eastern Indigo Snakes utilize their burrow as well, but this snake is extirpated from Mississippi. Gopher Tortoises often forage in early morning for various vegetation and fruit (Guyer et al., 2015).

Adult foraging along a road, South Mississippi

Identifying Traits

  • Round head
  • Thick legs with unwebbed toes for burrowing


Sandy pine and mixed pine forests, usually closely related to longleaf pine savannas


Constructs burrows up to 30 feet in length, important ecosystem managers


Various fruits and herbaceous vegetation

Adult in burrow, Harrison Co. (MS)
Adult male moving into burrow, Harrison Co. (MS)
Closeup, Stone Co. (MS), © Robert Howell