Desert Tortoise Facts!

Threatened desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)
Threatened desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Image credit: USFWS Endangered Species cc2.0

Desert Tortoise Facts!

Desert Tortoise6
Desert tortoise near Las Vegas. Photo: Chris Rondeau/USFWS. Image credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region cc2.0

Desert tortoises can be found in scrub habitat, at elevations of 1000 to 3500 feet (305 to 1067 meters) above sea level. They are very well-adapted to the extreme temperatures of their environment. One of these adaptations is that their front limbs are long, with strong nails fit for digging. They can burrow as deep as 3 to 6 feet (0.9 to 1.8 meters) underground and, because of this, they can even survive where the ground temperature is above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 Celsius). To survive in such an extreme climate, they spend 95% or more of their lives burrowed underground, either avoiding the harsh heat of summer, or lying dormant during the winter.

desert tortoise near water
Image credit: ~Pawsitive~Candie_N cc2.0

Another adaptation is their ability to conserve water. They are most active during the springtime, digging water basins to collect the infrequent rain (and always remembering where they dug so that they can return), and absorbing the moisture they need from the grasses and wildflowers they eat. During the driest and hottest times of the year, then, they conserve the water that is already stored in their bodies. Adult desert tortoises can go for a year or more without drinking water!


Threatened desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)
Threatened desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Image credit: USFWS Endangered Species cc2.0

It has a large urinary bladder that can store over 40% of its body weight in water to use when necessary, and it may eliminate waste like a white paste instead of liquid urine during times that are incredibly dry. Be careful if you come across one — if the tortoise is disturbed, it empties its bladder as a defense mechanism, which can lead to dehydration and possibly death, so it should not be handled or picked up.

Paiute Wilderness
Plants in the Paiute Wilderness. This place host over 250 animal species including desert tortoise. Image credit: mypubliclands cc2.0

The desert tortoise is helpful in replanting and populating native plants. It takes 20 to 30 days for the tortoise to digest its food, and it spreads seeds throughout its path as it defecates.

Desert Tortoises are featured in the following books:
25 Desert Animals
101 Facts… Turtles!
101 Facts… Desert Animals

The YouTube video playlist below contains a video about Desert Tortoises. Details of the videos featured are underneath.

The Playlist:

  1. The Heat is On: Desert Tortoises and Survival (Full video) by usgs
  2. The Desert Tortoise by RosyBoas
  3. Desert Tortoise Release by SDZoo
  4. Sonoran Desert Tortoise by Laurie Nessel
  5. Protecting the Desert Tortoise by Chevron


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