Turtles and Tortoises

A turtle that has pulled its head and feet into its protective shell. These parts are still visible, but not easily accessed.
Turtles and tortoises have the ability to pull their face and legs into their shell if they feel threatened. This Sonoyta mud turtle was being measured and documented by researchers at Quitobaquito, and retreated into its shell for security.

NPS photo


Turtles and tortoises have evolved to carry a two-in-one home and a coat of armor with them. Their shell over their back and belly is called a “carapace” and “plastron” respectively. These hard structures are made of modified skeletal bones, providing this shelled critter’s organs support and protection from hungry predators. The shell is often capped with large scales or “scutes” that grow layer by layer and help age the turtle or tortoise. Although very similar at a glance, turtles and tortoises are adapted to different environments and are found in different places. Turtles are typically found in or near water and have more streamlined shells, while tortoises can thrive away from water and often have bumpier features. The thinner, paddle shaped feet of turtles allow for easier swimming, while stocky, scoop-shaped tortoise feet allow them to travel over land and dig holes.

A desert tortoise faces the camera with both front legs out to the side at rest.

NPS photo

Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai)

The Sonoran Desert Tortoise is a small to medium tortoise that is well adapted to digging. This tortoise will excavate a burrow, or modify the abandoned burrow of another animal, that it may use for years. This slow-moving tortoise beats the heat by retreating into its burrow and remaining mostly inactive through the dry seasons. During the monsoon or winter rains, this tortoise will become more active, looking for water and food, and to patrol its territory. The shell, or carapace is thick and strong, providing the slow-moving tortoise protection from hungry predators.

Identify this Tortoise

An adult Sonoran Desert Tortoise is roughly the size of a basketball, with a carapace about 12 inches long (30 cm). The carapace is mottled orangish brown, and the skin is gray and roughly textured. The rear legs are stout and strong, while the front legs and claws are scoop shaped to aid in digging. Look for this tortoise romping around foothills and washes where it shelters in caves and behind boulders, between snacking on leaves, branches, and fruit.

a mud turtle swims along the shore of a body of water.

NPS photo

Sonoyta Mud Turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense longifemorale)

The Sonoyta Mud Turtle only occurs naturally in the United States at Quitobaquito, at the southern end of the monument. It is a subspecies of the wider-spread Sonora mud turtle that became isolated due to the natural shifting of the Rio Sonoyta that this species originally called home. Due to climate change and human-caused environmental stress in the area, the turtles are endangered. The monument and supporters of the turtle are working hard to preserve the habitat, and won federal protection for the species in 2017.

The hot, dry climate of the Sonoran Desert might seem a poor environment for freshwater turtles, but Quitobaquito Springs provides a perfect home to these unique residents. These turtles spend most of their time in the water, where they feed on aquatic invertebrates, plants, and occasionally mesquite beans and Quitobaquito pupfish. They stake out territories in the water, often bask in the water, and even breed in the water! However, they lay their eggs on land.

Sonoyta mud turtles typically hatch during the summer monsoon. At hatching, they are less than an inch (2.4 cm) long. They can reach lengths of 5.2 inches (13.5 cm) and usually live around 10 to 12 years. During particularly dry or cold times, Sonoyta mud turtles burrow into the soil, close their shells almost completely, and enter a period of temporary dormancy called estivation. This lets them survive the harsh and dynamic environment of the Sonoran Desert.

There are only five populations of Sonoyta mud turtles in the world (all concentrated around the Rio Sonoyta in Sonora, Mexico), and the population at Quitobaquito Springs is the only one in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Sonoyta mud turtle as endangered in 2017, protecting it under federal law. This hopefully means, that, with your help, future generations will be able to see this unique animal in its natural habitat.

Identify this Turtle

The Sonora Mud Turtle is a small to medium sized turtle, with a shell or “carapace” reaching about 7 inches long (18 cm). The carapace is smooth with a prominent ridge or keel down the middle. The carapace and skin are brown with some yellow mottling. Younger turtles may have more prominent yellow markings. The legs are fairly slender, with wide feet used to swim. Look for these turtles swimming in the water at Quitobaquito.


More About Sonoran Desert Reptiles

Last updated: September 2, 2023

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