Gopher Tortoise Diet

gopher tortoise diet

Gopher tortoises are herbivores, eating over 300 species of plants such as grasses, legumes and flowers.

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These birds also enjoy feasting on prickly pear pads and fruit (Opuntia spp.).

They are sedentary species whose dispersal depends on habitat, season and sex considerations; typically foraging within 160 feet of their burrows.



Gopher tortoises feed on grasses, legumes and flowering weeds as part of their diet. By maintaining an environment with these low-growing plants thriving, habitat structure is preserved while tortoises spread seeds that keep populations balanced in an ecosystem.

Gopher tortoises living in sand pine scrub areas tend to feed on an assortment of plant species, such as legumes and forbs, while selecting grasses according to availability. As plant availability decreases during autumn months, gopher tortoises become less dependent upon Poaceae grasses for sustenance while increasing consumption of legumes and forbs.

Gopher tortoises often occupy dense aggregations during breeding season in longleaf pine-oak woodlands, preferring sunlit areas with well-drained soil [103,104]. Large males defend burrow sites near adult females while excluding younger males from entering breeding areas [103,104]. Gopher tortoises prefer sunlit spots for their nesting activities during this period [104-106].


Gopher tortoises are one of the largest fossorial (ground-dwelling) reptiles in North America. They feed on low-growing grasses, herbs, fruits, flowers and vegetables and dig very long burrows as their homes. Polygynous in nature and mating season runs from April through November; males visit females using rasping calls to court them by rubbing against their shells in order to distribute pheromones; additionally they may fight other males to gain the attention of females they want mate with.

Gopher tortoises’ diets vary with each season. From July through November, their diet largely consists of grasses; during these two months however, their food preference shifts towards legumes and fallen fruits (pinto beans, field peas, sensitive brier, hoary peas and milk peas are among their preferred sources). [7] These sources of protein and fiber provide essential sources of nutrition.

Herbaceous Plants

Gopher tortoises feed on an assortment of herbaceous plants, but grasses account for 70-80% of their diet. In addition to grass, they also eat flowers, shrubs, vines, tree leaves and roots.

They prefer sites that offer moderate to high cover of herbaceous forage, reflecting their home ranges in areas where species composition and structure provide them with abundant sources of forage [1].

Gopher tortoises thrive in environments that combine pine-grassland and scrubby flatwoods, where they can find grasses, herbs, fruits and woody plants in abundance. Furthermore, such environments promote soil moisture retention, reduce fire risks, increase biodiversity of plant species as well as early successional habitats and support early successional stages.


Hunting for food and pets, vehicular mortality, removal as “pests” in agricultural fields with livestock and agricultural crops, habitat degradation and loss, gassing during rattlesnake round-ups as well as gassing during rattlesnake round-ups are among the factors which have caused population declines of gopher tortoises [15]. Yet in spite of these threats many populations remain healthy.

Gopher tortoises’ diets vary based on habitat, seasonal availability of plants and personal preference. While grasses, legumes and succulents may form their main diet source, they also feed on mosses, flowers, fruit and spores.

Gopher tortoises differ from many reptiles in that they live in groups known as colonies, rather than alone [7]. Their colonies usually consist of loosely clustered individuals living together over several meters to many miles wide – most time is spent underground though some foraging may occur outside during daylight hours.


Gopher tortoises are highly adaptable creatures with an eclectic diet. Able to survive off of different kinds of grasses, legumes, and broadleaf plants they play a critical role in ecosystem health – their food preferences influenced by food availability as well as habitat conditions can shape their daily eating habits.

Gopher tortoises often spend more time above ground when food supplies are abundant, often seen lounging by their apron, walking around or searching for mating partners. Their movements may also be determined by competition for food as well as other tortoises present.

Gopher tortoises feed on roots and young shoots of grasses, legumes, cacti pads, flowers, berries and fruits when in their native environments; pet gopher tortoises should follow a diet tailored specifically to them as advised by reptile specialists and vets.