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They walked with the dinosaurs and survived ice and cataclysm, but can they survive us? Turtles are the oldest living reptiles, but terrestrial gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) have chosen open woods, grasslands and sandy, well-drained uplands and coastal dunes as their home. Alas, this is also first-choice habitat for Homo sapiens var. south Floridiana. The latter are flooding South Florida. The former are disappearing.

Bearing a gray, brown, or tan domed carapace roughly a foot long, decorated with grooved rings like tidy tiles, gophers are exquisite excavators. Their elliptical burrows, commonly 10 to 35 feet long, house numerous other species-burrowing owls, gopher frogs, indigo snakes-many of which are also endangered. Raccoons, opossums and several other varieties of snakes, spiders and insects benefit from these excavations as well.

Gopher tortoises exude patience and live about 50 years. They lumber slowly through life, tucking in when threatened and until danger passes. But they have no defense against bulldozers and automobiles except laws that prohibit killing, capturing, owning, buying or selling them except by special permit. Until recently, gophers were a much-hunted delicacy.

Gophers are thought to be territorial. Moving them in the face of human development rarely succeeds. Like all Testudines, males are polygamous. Females lay eggs and leave, letting their young fend for themselves from birth.

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