Stop 1

Desert tortoise at DRLC
Boss Pinkley, the DRLC's resident desert tortoise. Please do not feed or approach any animals at the Desert Research Learning Center.

Desert Tortoise Habitat

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, such poaching does occur. Once captive, desert tortoises cannot be re-released into the wild.

Where is Boss Pinkley?

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.

Life of the Desert Tortoise

Desert tortoise hatchlings are about two inches long. They grow to about 14 inches as adults. Toothless, they use their large tongues to push food to the back of their mouths. They typically eat grasses and other native plants and flowers. Desert tortoises 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. They are found south and east of the Colorado River, in the central and western parts of Arizona, and into northwestern Mexico. In the wild, desert tortoises 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.

Threats to the Desert Tortoise

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, vandalism, vehicular mortality, release of captive tortoises into the wild, and disease.

In addition, drought reduces available food supply 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.

How You Can Help

  • 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.

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: June 21, 2018