Stop 1: Desert Tortoise Habitat

Desert tortoise at DRLC
Boss Pinkley eats a pricklypear fruit. Please do not feed or approach any animals at the Desert Research Learning Center.

This enclosure is home to "Boss Pinkley," a tortoise acquired through the Desert Tortoise Adoption Program. The program helps transfer unwanted captive desert tortoises to qualified private custodians. (It is illegal to remove tortoises from the wild, but unfortunately, this does occur. Once captive, desert tortoises cannot be re-released into the wild.)

You'll be lucky to catch a glimpse of Boss. Sonoran desert tortoises (Gopherus morafkai) spend up to 98% of their time underground, escaping either summer heat or winter cold. Their ability to dig burrows allows them to inhabit some of the most extreme environments on Earth, where ground temperatures can exceed 140°F.

Toothless, desert tortoises use their large tongues to push food to the back of their mouths. They typically eat grasses and other native plants and flowers. They can sense when rain is coming and may be found in low areas, waiting for the water to appear. Sonoran desert tortoises live on steep, rocky hillsides and in alluvial fans at the base of mountains. In the wild, they live about 50–80 years. They usually roam no further than a few miles from where they hatched but may travel much farther to locate suitable mates.

Tortoise habitat with two burrows and wall
Our tortoise habitat has two burrows. The winter burrow (back left) is in a sunny spot, adjacent to the DRLC building for warmth. The summer burrow (front right) is under a tree and adjacent to an external wall to help keep it cool. Both burrows are made of soil and covered with a concrete cap.

The Sonoran desert tortoise is listed as a candidate species for the threatened and endangered list. Its primary threats include habitat loss, invasive exotic species, removal of individuals from the wild, release of captive tortoises into the wild, and disease. Climate change is another significant challenge. Drought reduces available food and can cause females to lay fewer or no eggs. Prolonged high soil temperatures favor development of female tortoises, potentially leading to reproductive decline in future generations.

Keep wild tortoises wild. It is illegal to remove a tortoise from the wild in Arizona.

Keep captive tortoises captive. It is illegal to release captive tortoises into the wild. Captive tortoises released into the wild can introduce diseases that are devastating to wild populations.

Do not breed captive tortoises.

Consider joining the Desert Tortoise Adoption Program. Lawfully obtained desert tortoises may be privately adopted, subject to specific rules. This program finds suitable homes and custodians for captive desert tortoises. 

Participate in the Sponsor-a-Turtle program, which helps the Arizona Game and Fish Department to purchase technical equipment used to monitor tortoise populations statewide.

Control weeds. Many non-native plants can be toxic or otherwise dangerous for desert tortoises, such as split grass (Schismus barbatus), Russian thistle (Salsola tragus), red brome (Bromus madritensis rubens), and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).

Practice responsible vehicle use. To preserve tortoise habitat, stay on authorized roads and trails and do not trample vegetation.

Watch and enjoy, but avoid contact. If you observe a desert tortoise in the wild, consider yourself wildly fortunate and let it be. Human handling can be deadly for wild tortoises. The one exception to this rule is if a tortoise is in harm’s way trying to cross a road. If it is safe to do so, gently lift the tortoise high enough so its feet are just above the ground and transport the tortoise across the road in the direction it was heading.

  • Tortoises live exclusively on land. Turtles live in water some of the time
  • Tortoises have elephantine (columnar) hind limbs and feet. A turtle’s front legs are flipperlike; a tortoise’s are not.
  • Tortoises are generally vegetarians. Turtles tend to be omnivores, eating both plants and small animals.

In 1901, Frank Pinkley started work as the first custodian of Casa Grande Ruins Reserve (now Casa Grande Ruins National Monument), helping with archeological excavations from 1906 to 1908. In 1924, he was appointed superintendent of the 14 “Southwestern National Monuments." They would eventually grow to include 27 units in four states, with a total area of 1,143.35 square miles. Pinkley fought hard for their preservation and funding. As their leader, he was affectionately called, simply, “The Boss.”

To find Stop 2, face away from the tortoise habitat and follow the path around to the west side of the DRLC building.


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Last updated: September 8, 2022