Desert Tortoise

Gopherus agassizii

Conversation Status:
IUCN Red List - Vulnerable
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service List - Threatened

a domed shelled tortoise

NPS / C. Rohe

Basic Biology

  • Color: dull brown, tan, or grey.
  • Size: 8 to 15 inches, up to 9 lbs.
  • Diet: leaves, cacti, flowers, and grasses.
  • Reproduction: breeding season in spring to early summer. Females will dig deep crescent-shaped holes in which they lay up to fourteen eggs. When they emerge from their shells, the two-inch hatchlings must dig to the surface.
  • Habitat: most Mojave Desert habitats, from flat, lowland scrub to more rugged terrain.
a desert tortoise eating a flower
Tortoise feeding on flowers

NPS photo


Living forty-five to fifty years or more, the desert tortoise is an expert at desert dwelling. Like many other desert animals, the tortoise spends much of its time in a burrow underground where temperature and living conditions are not quite as extreme: cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, and not quite as arid as on the surface. During hot periods, the tortoise may be active only in the early morning and later in the evening. In the fall and early spring, when temperatures are cooler, it may adopt a more diurnal schedule, meaning it is more active during the day. Desert tortoises will drink water when available, but they get most of their water from plants.

Breeding season occurs in the spring and early summer. When a female tortoise is ready to lay her eggs, she will dig a crescent-shaped hole into which up to fourteen eggs may be laid. Temperature has an impact--incubation temperatures over 115.2 degrees F result in more females, and lower temperatures result in more males. After emerging from their shells, the hatchlings must dig themselves up to the surface.

a tortoise next to a road in the rain
Desert tortoise in the rain, just out of the roadway.

NPS photo


Populations have declined rapidly in recent years due to encroachment of humans onto habitat, off-road vehicle activity, and disease.

As a threatened species, they are protected from any harassment. If you see a desert tortoise, let it be—frightening a tortoise can cause it to urinate and lose valuable water, which can put this creature in a dire situation. Only touch a tortoise if it is in immediate danger, such as to move it from a roadway.


Learn about how to safely move a tortoise, courtsey of Joshua Tree National Park:

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3 minutes, 59 seconds

Learn about the only time you should move (or touch) a tortoise, and how to do it safely.

Last updated: September 29, 2021

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Death Valley, CA 92328


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