Desert Tortoise Notecard

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Desert Tortoise (Gophorus agassazii)

Desert tortoises range from the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts of southeastern California and southern Nevada south through Arizona and Mexico. They inhabit semi-arid grasslands, gravelly desert washes, canyon bottoms and rocky hillsides. Desert tortoises are strictly terrestrial. They have domed shells and stumpy elephantine hind legs, and their front limbs are flattened for digging. These tortoises may attain a length of 9-15 inches in carapace length and weigh up to 15 pounds. They may live up to 100 years.

Desert tortoises are herbivores eating grasses, herbs and wildflowers. They spend most of their lives in burrows which they dig with well-muscled front legs. Burrows provide a cool place for the tortoises during the dry, hot days of late spring and summer as well as a warm place for winter hibernation. Burrows also serve another purpose: protection from predators. Ravens, Gila monsters, kit foxes, badgers, roadrunners and coyotes are all natural predators of the desert tortoise, generally preying on juveniles which are 2-3 inches long with a thin, delicate shell.

Male hierarchies are established by aggression; upon meeting an adversary, a male will stand as high as possible making short rushes at his opponent while attempting to overturn him. Females reach sexual maturity at about 15-20 years. Nests are dug from May through July with females producing up to three clutches each season with 4-14 eggs per clutch. Only a few hatchlings out of every hundred make it to adulthood.

Desert tortoises are a threatened species. Much of their habitat has been lost or degraded to mining, livestock grazing, agriculture, development and off-road vehicle use. Illegal collection as pets has also taken its toll. Their low reproductive potential makes their population particularly vulnerable to disturbances. Just as the turtle cannot separate itself from its shell, neither can we separate ourselves from what to do to the earth.

artwork by Dan Burgevin ©2003 

text by Steve Sierigk

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