Jousting Tortoises: A Gopher Challenge!

Written by David Kyle Rakes

Adapted for Conservation Conversations by Marlowe Starling

A young gopher tortoise. Photo by FWC.

A young gopher tortoise. Photo by FWC.

They spend a considerable amount of their time underground in their sandy burrows, but during the warm days of summer, they become active. In my experience, if you walk through a sandy area of coastal or inland Florida any time between June and September, you can see these fossorial creatures lumbering about on land. 

The gopher tortoise is an upland reptile species that lives in the scrub and sandhills of the southeast. Over the years of walking through Florida parks, I have seen many of them. I’ve seen some guarding their burrow entrance, walking down a trail, and even a few leisurely tortoises sitting and eating prickly pear cactus and grasses. Only once did I see them fighting amongst themselves; although I knew other animals compete for mates and territory, I was surprised to discover that gopher tortoises also exhibit this animal behavior. In males,  tortoise fighting is known as jousting.

The eastern box turtle, which is commonly kept as a pet, is smaller than the gopher tortoise.  Credit: Eastern Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina carolina. (Jim Lynch, NPS; cc by-sa 2.0) website for more info on box tortoises:  https://www.welcomewildlife.com/all-about-box-turtles/#prettyPhoto

The eastern box turtle, which is commonly kept as a pet, is smaller than the gopher tortoise.
Credit: Eastern Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina carolina. (Jim Lynch, NPS; cc by-sa 2.0)
website for more info on box tortoises: https://www.welcomewildlife.com/all-about-box-turtles/#prettyPhoto

Before I tell you about the jousting tortoises, let me first tell you a little about this interesting animal. The tortoise is much bigger than a box turtle, which most people have seen. The top shell of the tortoise can be 14 inches long and is called the carapace; it is dome-shaped and brown or light tan. The bottom shell, called the plastron, is mostly flat and yellow-white. Both the carapace and the plastron are made up of square- to rectangular-shaped scutes, or hard plates. Up close, these scutes reveal their forming lines, rectangles within rectangles, which give the individual segments a decorative look. The tortoise has two large, round, stumpy hind legs and two flattened, shovel-like front legs that are used for digging their burrows. The head, when it is stretched out in front so the tortoise can eat, is snake-like, except for the beak-like mouth and eyes, which are large and proportional to the head.

Gopher tortoise burrows can provide habitat and shelter for more than 350 species. Photo by FWC.

Gopher tortoise burrows can provide habitat and shelter for more than 350 species. Photo by FWC.

The gopher tortoise is unique among other tortoises and their turtle cousins. The tortoise lives in multiple burrows within his area and doesn’t seem to mind sharing it with other animals. This is why the tortoises have been called “the landlord of the sandhills,” as they share their home with animals such as the indigo snake, pine snake, gopher frog, opossum, burrowing owl, Florida mouse, gopher cricket, and numerous scarab beetles. An interesting food chain has even evolved in the gopher tortoise’s home: The tortoise leaves dung there for dung beetles to eat, which in turn are eaten by the gopher frog. What an efficient way of taking care of waste, while also keeping a tidy burrow and providing food for other animals. It has also been reported that during the frequent sandhill fires, the burrows become temporary hideouts for birds and other creatures. There is plenty of room in the burrows since they are on average seven feet deep and fifteen feet long, with some as long as forty feet. The burrow is shaped like a cave from the tortoise’s body, so it is easy to determine the size of the tortoise in residence by the size of the burrow. The gopher tortoise’s scientific name, polyphemus, seems to reflect the cave-like burrow since there was a Cyclops named Polyphemus who lived in a cave in Homer’s epic poem, “The Iliad.” Perhaps the tortoise was named after Homer’s Polyphemus because both lived underground. 

Because a gopher tortoise creates its borrow using its body, the size of a den can indicate the relative size of its inhabitant. Photo by FWC.

Because a gopher tortoise creates its borrow using its body, the size of a den can indicate the relative size of its inhabitant. Photo by FWC.

Tortoises emerging from their burrows are a barometer for a nice sunny day. Seeing the tortoise on a sunny day makes the day even brighter. The day I saw the fighting tortoises, however, it was overcast and rainy.

The two jousters were near the cabins at Silver Springs State Park. I was walking across the paved parking area and saw in the distance what looked like a tortoise in a grassy field. I walked over to see a tortoise resting by the tree line, but it saw me coming, and since it was close to its burrow, it raced off and slid down into its hole. I looked across the grassy area, and in the distance I saw two more tortoises. I had never seen so many tortoises this close at one time before, and these latter two seemed to be unusually close to one another. Tortoises live in groups, but they are mainly independent, so I tend to see them by themselves. I remember thinking that I might be about to see gopher tortoises coupling. I rushed over to a longleaf pine tree for cover, as I wished to observe them without revealing my presence. I was about sixty feet away, and in a good spot to watch them, so I took out my binoculars, leaned my back comfortably against a pine tree, and began observing the tortoises to see what they were up to.

The bony structure protruding from the front of a male gopher tortoise is called the lamina, used to joust other males for competition over territory and mates. Photo by FWC.

The bony structure protruding from the front of a male gopher tortoise is called the lamina, used to joust other males for competition over territory and mates. Photo by FWC.

To my surprise, the tortoises were face-to-face, ramming their shells into each other. The tortoises were large adults over a foot in length, and I could hear the clamoring booms as their shells made contact. The sky was turning a dark gray, and I heard thunder in the distance as these two tortoises battled it out. The reverberations of the tortoise shells ramming into one another coincided with the thunder, making this fight seem like a great operatic performance. As I watched the tortoises it became clear that ramming was only one part of the battle. Both tortoises would begin the battle face-to-face; then, they would take turns lunging at each other, using their back legs to push off and their front legs to wrestle for position. After I watched them for a few minutes, it appeared that the tortoise that could lunge and get his lamina, or bony extension that protruded out from the plastron in front, underneath the other’s plastron or lamina was in the best position to roll the other on its back. Sometimes I would see both tortoises pushed up in front, their front legs up in the air, their shells poised together at the top at a forty-five degree angle, like two horseshoe leaners. Other times one tortoise had his lamina underneath the other’s in good position to flip, but the other tortoise’s front legs were on top of the potential victor’s legs, preventing the necessary lunge needed to finish the job. The tortoises’ lunging with the laminae has been described as jousting, the medieval competition between knights who wore suits of metal armor, carried a lance, and raced at each other on horseback. The objective was to knock the other off his horse with the lance as they rode past each other.

As it began to rain, the tireless tortoises continued to battle. Eventually, one tortoise succeeded in flipping the other on its back. The victorious one just stood and watched while the other lay helplessly upside down, thrashing its legs but going nowhere. I expected the victorious tortoise to walk away and leave the defeated tortoise upside down to die, but surprisingly, the victor began ramming the defeated one, and thus helped it to right itself again. The tortoises then went to battle some more and again the victorious one flipped his opponent upside down and, as before, rammed it and helped it right itself for the second time. This time the defeated tortoise, once he was on his feet, retreated and managed to get away. However, the battle was not over according to the champion, for it quickly crawled after the other, catching up to it and ramming it from behind. The defeated tortoise was forced once again to face off, and in less than one minute, and for an embarrassing third time, was put on his back. The winner as before helped the other back to his feet. The loser retreated again, but this time he was not pursued, so he made it back to his burrow along the tree line and disappeared underground. The champion tortoise also went back to his burrow, which was less than a hundred feet from the other’s. I always felt that the first tortoise I saw, the one that retreated right away, was a female, and the other two tortoises, who were of course males, were fighting for the right to mate with her. I’ll never know for sure since I didn’t get a good look at the first tortoise’s front plastron, which would have lacked a lamina if it were a female. 

The rain stopped and the sun was coming out again when I left the tortoise battle grounds. Maybe someday a gopher tortoise will move into my yard and take up residence, like it has for one of my friends. I can only hope. I have the right kind of habitat: sandy soil, grass, and some pine trees, even a few prickly pear cacti in the backyard. It would probably also help if I could somehow convince my wife that we don’t need dogs, but she tells me that will never happen. 

For more information about gopher tortoises, how you can help protect them, current research, news and more, visit https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/gopher-tortoise/.


David Kyle Rakes has been a volunteer nature walk guide at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala, Florida, for the last five years. He is the author of Botanizing with Bears and Other Florida Essays, available to purchase at the Silver River Museum and Springside gift shop at Silver Springs State Park for $15. You may contact the author directly by emailing him at barakes123@gmail.com or writing to him at PO Box 2706 Belleview, FL 34421.