Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

close up of a desert tortoise
Getting this up close and personal to a tortoise is not advised unless you have a telephoto lens which will help you stay a respectful distance from the threatened desert dwellers.

NPS/DEVA

As desert towns and cities grow, the lands of Mojave National Preserve become increasingly important as critical Desert tortoise habitat. The Desert tortoise population has been in decline for decades, due to a variety of factors including loss of habitat and disease. In 1990, the Fish and Wildlife Service added this animal to its list of threatened species. The listing requires federal agencies to work together to stabilize Desert tortoise populations. Desert residents and visitors also have an important role to play in the tortoises' recovery.

 
a desert tortoise in its burrow
Desert tortoises spend 95% of their lives in their burrow. Seeing them on the landscape is a rare treat.

NPS/LAKE

Tortoise Lifestyles

Desert tortoises live in desert valleys between about 1,000 and 4,000 feet in elevation. Typically they are found in creosote bush, where scattered shrubs provide abundant space for growth of grasses and wildflowers, the favored foods of the tortoise. They spend about 95% of their lives in burrows, emerging to feed and mate during late winter and remaining active through the spring. Tortoises may emerge again after summer storms.

Like humans, tortoises reach adulthood between the ages of 14 and 20, and live from 60 to 80 years. Eggs and hatchlings are vulnerable: 98% die before reaching maturity. Adults, however, are well protected against most predators (other than humans) and consequently are long-lived.

Desert tortoises are well adapted to living in a highly variable environment. During prolonged droughts, they retreat to burrows and reduce their metabolism and loss of water while consuming little food. Adult Desert tortoises lose water at such a slow rate that they can survive for more than a year without access to free water. They are able to survive lean years, then grow and reproduce during years of favorable rainfall and forage production.

 
 
desert tortoise drinking water after rainstorm at Joshua Tree National Park
Tortoises are commonly seen on roadways after rainfall like this one at Joshua Tree National Park. Please drive carefully.

NPS/JOTR

Tortoises and Traffic

Tortoises travel long distances in search of food and water and will cross highways through their territory.

  • Slow your roll. Motorists must observe posted speed limits.
  • Keep an eye out. Watch for tortoises crossing the road, especially during rainy weather. Tortoises are attracted to puddles that form on roadways during rainstorms.
  • Always look under your car before driving away. Tortoises enjoy resting in the shade of parked cars.
  • Keep vehicles on established roads only. Vehicles will crush tortoise burrows, killing the tortoises and eggs within.
  • Be a tortoise crossing guard! Never pick up a tortoise unless it is immediate danger. From a distance where the animal's behavior remains unchanged, watch to ensure the tortoise makes it across the road safely. Take a GPS from your phone and email your sighting to neal_darby@nps.gov. Every tortoise is important as they are threatened. The NPS is currently monitoring desert tortoises and relies on sightings from the field to help protect this cool animal.

 
A very small tortoise stares at the camera. It is on pavement.
It is important not to pick up or harass tortoises: observe these cuties from a comfortable distance.

NPS/B. Michel

Tortoise Watching

An encounter with a Desert tortoise is a rare treat. Unlike speedy lizards, tortoises move slowly, so you can get a good look at these lumbering reptiles.

  • Don't get too close. Tortoise bladders are like canteens; they store water, then reabsorb it directly from the bladder when fresh water is not available. When frightened, they may urinate as a defense mechanism. Loss of this water supply can be fatal.
  • It is important not to pick up or harass tortoises: observe them from a comfortable distance. If the tortoise has retreated into its shell, it means you are too close, it is scared, and you need to back off to a safe distance.Tortoises are susceptible to an upper respiratory infection that has been linked to handling by humans.

Tortoise Collecting is Against the Law
When tortoises were plentiful, it was common for people driving through the desert to take a tortoise home to keep as a pet. Captive tortoises often develop an upper respiratory disease. Some captors who grew tired of their long-living tortoise pets have released them back into the desert, spreading the sickness among wild tortoise populations. Although there is still much to learn about this disease that is decimating the desert tortoise, biologists believe that it is crucial to tortoise recovery to keep captive tortoises from being returned to the wild. Captive tortoises can now be legally adopted; this is the only legal means to keep a tortoise as a pet.

 
a chuckwalla sits on a ledge

Reptiles

Mojave National Preserve has 36 documented reptile species. Reptiles are cold-blooded. Jury's out on if they're warm hearted.

Closeup view of baby kangaroo rat in the desert

Discover Life in the Desert

How many lil' birdies are in the preserve? What's that baby rat thing doing at my campsite? Download your own species checklist here.

 

Last updated: March 21, 2022

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