CROW Case of the Week: Gopher Tortoise #18-2830

The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is so named because of its ability to dig large, deep burrows. These land tortoises dig these holes for shelter and are known to share these burrows with hundreds of other species. 

The long-lived reptiles look prehistoric and can live more than 100 years, but generally average 40 to 50 years in age. They are built likes tanks, with shovel-like front legs that help them to dig and strong and sturdy back legs to help anchor the activity. It is these claws that land tortoises possess that tells them apart from sea turtles, which have flippers in place.

Interestingly, the sex of a gopher tortoise can be distinguished by the bottom of its shell. The underside of a male’s shell is concave, which is different than the flat plastron of the female. Like most reptiles, the sex of a gopher tortoise at birth is temperature-dependent. When the eggs are laid, they are neither male nor female. The sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature of the sand or dirt during incubation. If the temperature is above 85 degrees F, the hatchling tortoises will be females. If temperatures are below 85 degrees F, expect males.

At CROW, an adult male gopher tortoise was admitted after being hit by a car in Cape Coral. The tortoise suffered a large T-shaped fracture extending most of the length of its upper shell. The fracture was cleaned and bandaged overnight, and a lengthy surgery was performed the following day. Reportedly, the surgery consisted of anesthetizing the tortoise, aligning the pieces of the shell and placing 10 screws connected with wire along the fracture site. These “braces” are said to help stabilize the fractured pieces of shell while it heals. A feeding tube was placed during surgery to assist the rehabilitation staff with providing nutritional support and medications for the tortoise. It may be nearly two months before CROW officials know how the patient will fare after surgery. 

“The length of healing depends upon the severity of the fracture in terms of number of pieces, displacement of those pieces, blood supply and contamination,” said Dr. Kyle Abbott, CROW veterinary intern. “In general, simple fractures that have good blood supply can have enough stability after four to six weeks of rigid stabilization with hardware. After stabilization, the hardware is removed, but healing and remodeling of the bone can take months to years to have full healing.”

Due to the severity of the patient’s injury, he may have suffered further disorders related to nerves or spinal cord. “In this tortoise’s case, it is likely he has neurologic damage from the fractures in his shell,” said Dr. Abbott. “Tortoises have their spine incorporated into their shell, and when they have fractures occur, neurologic damage is a real concern. This may be something he can recover from with physical therapy, or it may be a lifelong complication.”

Veterinarians also noted that the tortoise had limited mobility in its hind legs. A set of wheels was installed to help the tortoise move around until it has regained full strength in the legs. “The wheels are in place with the intention of giving him time to have his mobility and control of his hind legs return. With the wheels, he is able to be mobile, and still have his hind legs free to move as much as he is able,” said Dr. Abbott. “Overall he has been quiet during his recovery, but perks up and has been eating during outdoor time. If he is able to regain the full use of his hind limbs, then he should be able to return to a normal, full life.”

After two weeks at the clinic, the patient’s prognosis is wait and see for now. “Once the fracture has stabilized after the four- to six-week period in the hospital, the timeline for release depends on him having improvement of his hind limb mobility,” Dr. Abbott added. “He will also need to regain strength and muscle mass prior to release.”


CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.

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