Wildlife Portfolio of the Western National Parks
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THE DESERT TORTOISE is extremely well adapted to living in arid regions and can be found in the desert areas of southern Nevada, southeastern California, and the adjoining portions of Arizona. Van Denburgh, an authority on western reptiles, records a specimen from the Cottonwood Mountains in Joshua Tree National Monument, Riverside County, Calif.

This animal has a broad flat shell with a deep serrate margin. The individual shown in the photograph on the opposite page had a shell measuring about 7 inches in length and was believed to be about two-thirds grown. The carapace, or top of the shell, is made up of squarish plates bordered with fine concentric lines and its general coloration is brown; the lower portion usually is yellowish or horn color. This tortoise has stout legs. The front legs are armed with 5 claws adapted to digging and the hind ones are short and stumpy. The tail is short.

These reptiles are vegetarians and live on the succulent parts of such plants as they can reach. It is said that they eat the fleshy parts of various species of cacti and no doubt some of their water supply is gained from this source because they live in places where it is impossible for them to get a drink for long periods. The desert tortoises are said to come out of their burrows in considerable numbers after a thunderstorm and probably it is at such times that they obtain most of their water supply for the season.

These reptiles are slow and deliberate in their actions. Dr. Charles Camp reports that one of them, in traveling at its usual gait, made 20 feet in 1 minute, by the watch, and he suggests that 4 or 5 miles a day would be about their limit.

When one desert tortoise meets another, it nods its head rapidly up and down as if to say "how-do-you-do." If the two happen to be males, a lively fight is apt to ensue. The males are said to court their mates by biting them gently around the edges of their shell.

When E. Lowell Sumner took the photograph reproduced on the opposite page, he found the dried shell of another tortoise nearby. He reports that tooth marks on the empty shell indicated the animal had been eaten by a coyote. Frank Stephens, who spent many years in the desert, told me that frequently he found tooth marks on the shells of living tortoises indicating that coyotes had endeavored to bite into them.


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Last Updated: 01-Jul-2010