Gopher tortoises are native to the southeastern United States, where they prefer well-drained, sandy soil which is suitable for their burrows. These conditions along with a good variety of vegetation can be found in longleaf pine, xeric (dry) oak hammocks, scrub, pine flatwoods, dry prairies, and coastal dunes.
Mating season is between April and November, with courtship rituals leading up to reproduction. Females generally lay 3-14 eggs in their burrows, which then incubate for between 80-110 days (with the shortest incubation periods in warmer climates). The sex of the eggs is a result of the temperature where they are incubated. Above 30 degrees celsius results in a female, below 30 degrees celsius results in a male. The gopher tortoise is born with golden-yellow scutes with black outlining, this fades to a grayish-black or dark brown, with a yellowish plastron (bottom shell). Maturity is reached within 10-15 years, when the shell is about 9 inches long. They can live in the range 40 to 60 years out in the wild, with captive tortoises being recorded to live up to 98 years.
Gopher tortoise are herbivorous scavengers. With a diet containing over 300 species of plants. Dietary habits change as they develop, with juvenile turtles having diets richer in proteins while mature turtles have diets with more grasses and fibrous plants.
Gopher tortoises spend much of their time in burrows, which measure up to 48 ft (14.5 meters) in length and 9.8 ft (3 meters) deep. The carefully excavated tunnel provides shelter from heat, cold, fire, and predators; not just for the tortoise, the shelters have been known to provide shelter for 350+ other animal species. Without this refuge, many of these species wouldn't be able to survive conditions like fire or other extremes, making the gopher tortoise a keystone species.