Well-meaning beach-goers in Florida are mistaking terrestrial tortoises for sea turtles and placing the animals into the ocean, according to the state wildlife agency.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said it has received at least three recent reports of confused good Samaritans encountering young gopher tortoises on the beach and, believing them to be sea turtle hatchlings, relocating them to the water. The mistake seems to come from the gopher tortoise’s habit of sheltering on sandy beaches, the same places where Florida’s five sea turtle species often go to nest.
Wildlife officials are urging would-be animal rescuers to carefully identify an animal before taking action. The easiest way is to take a look at the turtle’s limbs. Sea turtles have flippers with one or two claws on each. Gopher tortoises have toes with several claws – great for for digging burrows, not so much for swimming.
The gopher tortoise is listed as a threatened species, while all of Florida’s sea turtle species are listed on the federal government’s endangered or threatened lists. Tortoises and sea turtles are also protected under state law.
Officials say that if you believe you’ve spotted a sea turtle or tortoise, it’s best to not touch it, and if you believe it needs help, call your local wildlife rescue. Like in the case of those few unfortunate gopher tortoises, there’s a good chance your personal involvement may ultimately do more harm then good.