Wildlife Tracking: Stalking La Tortuga, the endangered desert tortoise

Desert tortoise and Beavertail Cactus

Think of your RV as an exploration machine, able to take you to places where you can live comfortably while pursuing elusive wildlife, photographing exploding Spring wildflowers, or spotting migrating neo-tropical birds.

Unfortunately, snowbirds that leave their winter roost to head back to Canada, the Midwest, or Pacific Northwest seldom see La Tortuga, the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizi), a prehistoric resident of the deserts of Southeastern California, Southern Nevada, and Western Arizona.

This endangered reptile lives in arid, sandy, and gravely areas like washes and canyon bottoms at home with creosote bush, thorny scrubs, and cacti. It’s domed, brown, scaly shell – the carapace – can reach fifteen inches in length. The rear legs are stumpy, like an elephant’s, and the flat front legs are equipped with claws and covered with protective scales, perfect for digging form-fitting, arch-shaped burrow homes where they live and spend their winter hibernation.

It emerges from its burrow in early spring and mates, nesting from May through July after laying as many as a dozen eggs. The eggs hatch from mid-August to October, with the new hatchlings maturing in 15 to 20 years, if they’re lucky.

The desert tortoise feeds on tender green plants, grasses, and cacti mostly in the cool of the morning, then retreats to its burrow – which can extend to a horizontal depth of thirty feet – to escape the heat of mid-day and to sleep at night.

The desert tortoise’s perfect evolutionary adaptation has so far enabled it to survive. It can feed to obesity to see it through droughts, re-absorb water from its own bladder, and sleep for long periods when the lack of rain leaves the desert dry and devoid of vegetation. Remarkably – knowing exactly when – it will emerge from its burrow and march directly to a tinaja (a natural rock basin that collects and stores sparse desert rain water) even before a cloud appears in the sky, and wait patiently until the rain inevitably comes.

In places fifty years ago a hundred or more tortoises could be seen on a single day’s hike. Now, even if you do stick around until they come out of hibernation, you may see only one or two — or none. Though the young are prey for hawks, coyotes, foxes, and ravens the adult tortoise’s demise is attributed to his worst enemy — man — especially off-road vehicles (the slow-moving tortoise cannot move fast enough to get out of the way).

Look for its dome-shaped burrows on the sides of washes and for its slow ambling gait as it explores the desert in search of food. The desert tortoise does not have a wide range so if you think you have found a burrow, scout the surrounding area and you may find its owner.

Remember, it is a federally recognized endangered species. Do not pick it up or take it home as a pet — it is illegal and punishable by stiff fines. However, it is not likely to get up and run away from you, so, while keeping a proper distance, it is possible to observe it leisurely chomping fresh green grass and enjoying life in the desert.


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