Turtles and tortoises: Can you tell the difference?

By Joanna Fitzgerald | Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital

A hatchling gopher tortoise and 11 peninsula cooter hatchlings were among the sixty-four animals admitted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida this past week. Other admissions include a marsh rabbit, an ovenbird, an eastern bluebird, a barred owl and a Florida water snake.

The gopher tortoise was found on the beach in north Naples. People thought the hatchling was a sea turtle so they put the tortoise in the ocean. The tortoise was seen struggling in the water so thankfully someone had the wherewithal to fish him back out.

The tortoise was alert and responsive when admitted to the hospital although his eyes were squinty and appeared irritated. Hospital staff placed the tortoise in the reptile room in a shallow dish of fresh water to soak and to monitor its behavior. The primary concerns for the hatchling were the possibility that it had inhaled saltwater and the eye irritation caused by exposure to salt water.

The tortoise is active when taken outside to graze but continues to show signs that its eyes were affected by the salt water. Along with daily grazing, the tortoise spends time in a shallow fresh water soak and will do so until all signs of irritation have cleared.

There are several beaches in our area where gopher tortoises live in the dunes adjacent to the ocean. If you visit the beach along Pelican Bay, Wiggin’s Pass and at Lely Barefoot Beach in Bonita, be mindful of the tortoises living nearby. Tortoises spend no time in the ocean and get the hydration they need from the vegetation they eat and rain water.

Gopher tortoises and sea turtles have very different morphology. Gopher tortoises have stumpy, elephantine hind feet and flat, thick, shovel-like front legs used for digging. Gopher tortoise shells are oblong.

Loggerhead sea turtles are the most common species that nest along our beaches. Loggerhead sea turtles have long, slim paddle-like flippers used for swimming. Loggerhead sea turtle’s shells are broad near the head and taper toward the rear, almost like the shape of a heart.

Please, if you find an animal you believe is in distress, call the wildlife hospital before taking action. Texting us a photo of the animal in question is quick and easy and allows us to assess the situation and determine the appropriate course of action.

A staff member was pleasantly surprised as she entered an outdoor recovery enclosure and found eleven hatchling peninsula cooters scrambling around. Part of the recovery process for rehabilitating water turtles at the von Arx Wildlife Hospital involves spending time in our outside recovery spaces. The enclosures have in-ground pools surrounded by natural vegetation and areas of dirt.

The outdoor setting allows our recovering turtles to swim, haul out and bask as they wish. Many of the turtles admitted to the hospital are gravid females (carrying eggs). Our outside recovery space replicates the natural environment and, unbeknownst to staff, provided the perfect spot for the female turtle to lay her eggs.

The hatchling cooters looked healthy and were very active when found. Staff monitored the hatchlings and once all showed they were strong and able to dive they were released in a pond. Vegetation around the water’s edge provided cover for the hatchlings.

How wonderful to realize when a caring person stopped to help the female turtle after she was hit by a car, that in fact, twelve lives were saved that day.

Turtles and tortoises are frequent victims of vehicle strikes. Whether they are crossing roads to find food or appropriate nesting locations, it puts them in harm’s way. If you encounter a turtle attempting to cross the road please safely pull over and offer assistance if possible. If the turtle is uninjured, place it out of danger in the direction it was headed. If the turtle is injured please bring it to the wildlife hospital for immediate medical assistance.

When picking up a turtle, it is best to cover its head and body with a towel or T-shirt. The turtle will not like the feel of the towel touching its body so it will be more likely to retract its head and legs into its shell. Never put a turtle directly in a lake or pond, instead place it near the edge of the water. As was the case with the hatchling gopher tortoise, misidentification of turtle species is very common and if a land tortoise is put in the water it may drown. Call the staff at the wildlife hospital at 239.262.CARE for guidance if you have any questions. Staff can help provide accurate species identification.

Recent Releases

A royal tern, three mourning doves, four peninsula cooters, four raccoons, two Virginia opossums, a Florida red-bellied turtle, a red-bellied woodpecker, a yellow-bellied slider, three chimney swifts, two cooper’s hawks, three eastern cottontails, a red-shouldered hawks, a burrowing owl, a big brown bat, a Florida softshell turtle and a Florida box turtle were released this past week.

Opportunities to Help

Visit the Conservancy website at www.conservancy.org to view all of the amazing volunteer opportunities at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Volunteers help in many different capacities and are vital to the success of our work. If you think you could dedicate one shift a week to help in the hospital, contact our volunteer office and get involved. Your volunteer time, donations, and memberships truly help us continue our work to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife and future.




Weekly blog from Joanna Fitzgerald, director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital.

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Conservancy of SWFL

Conservancy of SWFL

Protecting Southwest Florida's unique natural environment and quality of life...now and forever.

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