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A Talk on the Wild Side.

5 Fascinating Facts about the Desert Tortoise

Betsy Painter, working in our Ecological Services Program, tells us about desert tortoises.

 Desert tortoise Photo by Beth Jackson/USFWS

From March 21 to April 4, we are highlighting the western state of Utah and its geographical charm and the impressive restoration efforts going on there in the field, like the Big Bend Habitat Restoration Project in the City of West Jordan. Now we put a spotlight on an animal in Utah listed on the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Natural totem pole-shaped rock spires, called hoodoos, and crimson-colored canyons are easily spotted throughout the deserts of Utah, while a smaller, mobile natural wonder exists that is less likely to be seen—the desert tortoise. Here are five fascinating facts to share with friends and family to help raise awareness for this federally threatened animal: 

 Desert tortoise Photo by Beth Jackson/USFWS

1. The desert tortoise is one of the most elusive inhabitants of Western deserts, spending up to 95 percent of its life underground. It’s not that it’s shy; it just prefers escaping the intense heat of summer and cold of winter.

 Desert tortoise Photo by Beth Jackson/USFWS 

2. This desert reptile uses its strong limbs and claws to dig underground burrows three to six feet deep, and there it camps out for most of its days. The majority of desert visitors will not see a tortoise. But if you plan a trip for early spring, and are patient, Mother Nature may grant you a rare sighting.

 Desert tortoise Photo by Roy C. Averill-Murray/USFWS 

3. The desert tortoise can completely withdraw its head and limbs within its shell, leaving only horny scales visible to predators. Male tortoises have large curved gular horns that protrude from their lower shells underneath their neck and head. They use these horns to combat other males, and for butting and nudging females during courtship —an  unconventional way to pursue a romantic interest, but it works! 

 Desert tortoise Photo by Roy C. Averill-Murray/USFWS 

4. Have you ever wondered what sound a tortoise makes? Its vocal ranges vary with a multitude of sounds, including hisses, grunts, pops, whoops, huhs, echs, bips, etc. These little desert rangers have a lot to say, and when “words” fail, head bobbing speaks loud and clear as a warning for combative behavior. 

 Desert tortoise Photo by Roy C. Averill-Murray/USFWS 

5. Finally, the desert tortoise has a large bladder capable of storing more than 40 percent of its body weight in water, urea, uric acid and nitrogenous wastes. A common defensive behavior when molested or handled is to empty the bladder, leaving the tortoise at a considerable disadvantage during dry periods. We don’t blame the little guys! Sometimes fear’s reflexes are unstoppable. It’s best not to handle a desert tortoise if you are fortunate enough to encounter one in the wild.

 Desert tortoise Photo by Roy C. Averill-Murray/USFWS


Do the guy and gal tortoise mate, nest and reproduce in a fashion similar to their relatives?
# Posted By Barrie | 3/31/16 11:26 AM

Hi, our Desert Tortoise Recovery Office provides the following information on mating/reproduction: http://www.fws.gov/nevada/desert_tortoise/dt/dt_li...
Reproduction begins between ages 12-20, with clutch sizes of 1-14 eggs. In years with low rainfall, females may lay few to no eggs; in years of good rainfall and forage production, females may lay up to three clutches of eggs. Females can store sperm for five years or longer, meaning they can reproduce for several years after mating. Nests are built and eggs are laid in late spring or early summer. The hatchlings appear in 90 to 120 days. The mother leaves the nest, so once the hatchlings appear, they must survive on their own.
# Posted By Matt Trott, Fish and Wildlife Service | 4/1/16 3:33 PM

When there is a lot of rain fall flowers can grow in abundance. The tortoise will be hungry and may eat lots of flowers. What if the tortoise doesn't get that much to drink? How will the tortoise deal with extra white stuff from the poop? Is that bad to eat to many flowers?
# Posted By Julie Kaehler | 4/18/16 12:07 AM

We asked our Desert Tortoise Recovery Coordinator about tortoises and dry periods. His answer?
Desert tortoises use their urinary bladders to store water. When they are foraging and unable to drink, they dilute salts and toxins from their diet in their bladders. This allows them to continue eating well into dry periods. Once they have a chance to drink again, they will flush their bladder and refill it with fresh water. This is the reason people are discouraged from handling tortoises that they see in the wild. If they void their bladders by being handled improperly or by being scared, it can affect their survival.
# Posted By Matt Trott, Fish and Wildlife Service | 4/19/16 8:07 AM
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