California’s Desert Tortoise

Desert tortoiseNot every California denizen cruises the fast lane. The desert tortoise, which can travel up to one-fourth of a mile per hour, prefers to spend 95% of its life in burrows to escape the soaring heat and freezing cold of its habitat, the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.  Tortoises, as opposed to turtles, have terrestrial-adapted bodies, and cannot swim.  The desert tortoise, named the official state reptile in 1972, is characterized by its high domed shell (carapace), elephantine hind legs, and front limbs that are flat-shaped for digging.  It goes to water only to drink or bathe when the infrequent rainfall collects in pools near rocks or depressions.  Much of its water intake comes from moisture in the grasses, wildflowers, and fresh cactus buds it consumes in the spring; an adult can survive up to a year without access to water.  These reptiles have existed on Earth almost unchanged for millions of years, with life spans of 50 to 80 years. They have good “compass direction,” good eyesight and an excellent sense of smell. They vocalize with hisses, pops, and “poink” sounds. Females don’t breed until they are 15 to 20 years old, and survival of juveniles is low. The population has decreased 90% since the 1950s, and they are listed as a threatened species.  It is illegal to touch, harm, harass or collect a wild desert tortoise. The Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee offers volunteer opportunities and also accepts donations on line.