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The Desert Tortoise – Little Known Facts and Conservation Efforts

The Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizi), was, in the 1960’s, a pet trade staple.  A lack of information as to its proper care and massive habitat loss has today reduced populations to alarmingly low levels.  The species is now protected, and a great deal of research has gone into its husbandry and natural history.  Yet, it seems, few appreciate just how unique this animal is.  Today I’d like to highlight some of its lesser known habits, and how they affect the future of the species.

Tortoise Diversity

Desert Tortoises are one of four tortoise species, all of the same genus, native to North America.  All are terrestrial vegetarians with forelegs modified for burrowing.

An additional 49 species of tortoises inhabit Africa (where they reach their greatest diversity), Europe, South America and Asia.  Tortoises are absent from Australia and Antarctica.

Winter Migrations

Desert Tortoises are found from southeastern California’s Mojave Desert, southwestern Arizona, southern Nevada and southwestern Utah south to northern Baja California and northern Sinaloa, Mexico, and on Tiburon Island in Gulf of California.

Desert tortoise Habitat

It is in the northern part of this range where we find a most unique winter survival strategy. Here, desert tortoises migrate to hilly areas at the onset of cold weather and hibernate in communal burrows that are 15-33 feet in length. It seems that a burrow of suitable length (over 15 feet) could not be dug by a single tortoise in one season, so these long-established burrows (and traditional migration routes) are critical to winter survival.

Effective conservation planning requires an understanding of such factors – permanent hibernation burrows may be far from the tortoises’ summer foraging areas, and thus not recognized as essential habitat when preserves are set aside.  Populations deprived of migration routes to hibernation sites will become extinct in a single winter.

Summer nights are spent in shallow, self dug burrows that are often utilized for many years.

Good Intentions Gone Bad

Another unusual impediment to Desert Tortoise conservation arose when, with good intentions, large numbers of seemingly healthy pet tortoises were returned to the wild.  These animals were responsible for introducing a virulent but difficult-to-detect respiratory illness into wild populations.  Control measures are now in place in the USA.

Desert Tortoises inhabit the centerpiece exhibit of the new reptile house at the Staten Island Zoo, which I was proud to help plan several years ago.  Please see the attached photo above, and visit if you are able.

Further Reading

A wealth of information on Desert Tortoise Conservation is posted here.

A wonderful video of a Desert Tortoise egg hatching is posted here.



About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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