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Matt Marine

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Although I come from the flat lands of Indiana, I now call Arizona home where I love to rock climb, bike, backpack, paddle—and photograph it all. I can’t wait to share my adventures with the readers of Experience Arizona!

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Desert Tortoise

September 4, 2013

By Matt and Sydney Marine

You may have heard of the desert tortoise before, but have you wondered how a tortoise could live in the desert with little water and extreme heat? It has the capability to live where ground temperatures can exceed 140 degrees F because of its ability to dig underground burrows to escape the heat and go extended periods without drinking water. The desert tortoise is a unique and wonderful desert creature.

Adult tortoises can grow up to a length of 10-14 inches, with the females being smaller than the males. Male tortoises have a longer gular horn (when males fight other males, they use the gular horn to overturn an opponent) than females, and their lower shell is more concave then the females. Males also have larger tails then females. Their shells are greenish/tan to dark brown in color and high domed. They can grow up to 4-6 inches in height, and range in weight from 24-51 pounds. The front limbs have sharp and claw like scales, and are flattened for digging, the back legs are skinnier and longer.

Desert Tortoises can be found in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of southern California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. They inhabit semi-arid grasslands, desert washes and sandy canyon bottoms below 3,500 ft. They spend up to 95% of their livres underground so they can escape the heat of the summer, and the cold of the winter. Adult tortoises can live for a year or more without water. During the hottest time of the year, tortoises conserve the water already in their body, especially during the hot Sonoran summers.  Tortoises hibernate during the winter months, from about November to March.

Desert tortoises are herbivores (plant eaters) and eat a wide variety of plants. They consume herbs, grasses, shrubs, new growth of flowers and cati while they come out hibernation in the spring.

The desert tortoise’s mating season is around late summer to early fall. The gestation for the female desert tortoise is 10-12 months, and the clutch size is an average of 4-6 eggs. Females don’t breed until around 15-20 years of age. The mortality rate of young tortoise is very high, with only around 2-3 tortoises per 100 living to adulthood.

Other interesting facts and information about desert tortoises:

- The desert tortoise is the state reptile of California and Nevada

- The number of desert tortoises has decreased by a whopping 90% since the 1950s. The Mojave population is listed as threatened  

- Desert tortoises can live up to 50 years old

- Tortoises can increase their body weight by 40% after drinking their fill of water in dry months

- Don’t pick up a wild desert tortoise. Emptying its bladder is a defense mechanism. The tortoise can use the water in their bladder as a reserve. If they empty their bladder with no water to replenish it, the tortoise may die from dehydration   

- Since 1988, it has been illegal to capture a wild desert tortoise and bring it home. This can cause diseases to spread among the captive tortoises

- It is also illegal to release captive desert tortoises in the wild. Doing so is detrimental to wild tortoises because it can spread disease and disrupt uniquely adapted genetics in wild populations

- You may adopt a desert tortoise through a state sanctioned facility, see Arizona Game and Fish Department

- Click here for information on what to do if you find a desert tortoise in a residential area?

Desert tortoises are amazing creatures. If you’re lucky enough to find one out in the wild, count yourself lucky and take only pictures.   

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