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Wildlife Finds: Mojave Desert Tortoises

A mojave desert tortoise

A Mojave Desert Tortoise.
US Fish & Wildlife Service, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


The Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is known by many names, but these elusive creatures rarely reveal themselves to passers by. Incredibly, these reptiles can survive without a drink of water for more than a year, making them perfectly suited to the dry environments of the Mojave.

By hibernating for months out of the year, these tortoises can dramatically reduce their metabolism, and thus their water needs. Only emerging from their slumber when the fickle rains come, they can be spotted in puddles, pools, and streams during these rare times. Wildflowers, cacti, and grasses make up the bulk of their diet, meaning their active times are limited to the spring blooms and later rains.

Spending a vast majority of their lives in burrows retaining water, members of this species who survive their (rather deadly) juvenile stage can live to be sixty years or more. Their forelegs are well-suited for burrowing into the ground, making it easy for the tortoise to find a home wherever soil is available.

Despite their long life spans, the Desert tortoise has unfortunately been listed as a threatened species since 1990. Human development poses the greatest threat to this species, as burrows can be easily disturbed. Invasive grasses are another major threat, introducing the potential for brush fires in this naturally sparse landscape.

One of the best-recorded threats to this species is also caused by humans, albeit indirectly. Before southern California's extensive development, Desert tortoises thrived with few natural predators. As Route 66 and the post-World War II boom drew traffic through the Mojave, it was a common practice to take these tortoises home as pets. Unfortunately, captivity and the Desert tortoise don't blend well, at least without professional attention, and many tortoises taken from the wild develop serious, contagious respiratory illnesses.

Being that a pet tortoise might actually outlive its owner, many of these former pets were abandoned in the wild over the years. Today, strict restrictions are in place on taking tortoises from public lands, and especially on releasing reptiles (native or otherwise) back into the landscape.

Learn more about these rare reptiles from the National Park Service and the US Fish & Wildlife Service.


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