Service biologist creating an 'era of better research'

Roy Averill-Murray never thought his future would revolve around saving desert tortoises, but he has become the Service's top desert tortoise biologist, currently serving as desert tortoise recovery coordinator at the Southern Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: Jeff Servoss/USFWS

By Rebecca Fabbri
March 3, 2017

As someone who grew up fond of snakes, Roy Averill-Murray never thought his future would revolve around saving desert tortoises. Yet his 26 published journal articles, primarily focused on desert tortoise conservation only skim the surface of his efforts to keep these modern dinosaurs thriving in the wild.

Roy Averill-Murray with a Mojave desert tortoise
prior to release. Credit; Kimberleigh Field/USFWS

He was the first person to document the reproduction of the Sonoran desert tortoise and with several papers published; he’s now working on an analysis that highlights the differences between Sonoran desert tortoise and Mojave desert tortoise reproduction.

Averill-Murray, the Service's desert tortoise expert, serves as desert tortoise recovery coordinator at the Southern Nevada Field Office in Las Vegas, Nevada, and is creating “an era of better research” according to those who have worked with him.

He has been a “significant influence on desert tortoise conservation,” said Todd Esque, who has collaborated with Averill-Murray for many years.

“When Roy became director of the recovery team, he expanded the research community by eliminating exclusivity,” said Esque, of the U. S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center. “By bringing in more expertise from other fields to cross-cut problems, we’re gaining more resources to support our decision-making. He does a good job dealing with the problems we have at hand, while keeping in mind the bigger issues at the same time."

“In the past several years, my collaborators and I revised the desert tortoise recovery plan by implementing a more strategic approach,” said Averill-Murray. “This included, building models of known threats and assessing the different degrees of risk to the tortoises of where they’re distributed.”

A Mojave desert tortoise emerges from his home in the desert near Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: Kimberleigh Field/USFWS

Desert tortoises cover an immense range throughout California and Nevada, and the Mojave desert tortoise is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Human activities are impacting both desert tortoise populations, primarily by causing habitat loss and road collision mortality. Issues with predation, invasive plant species, and disease are also affecting the species’ survival.

Pre-GPS Days: Roy Averill-Murray scans for the electronic
signal of tagged desert tortoises in early 1992. Credit:
Cecil Schwalbe/USGS

“There are different threats and needs of the tortoises from one end of the range to the other,” he said. “There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach, which is why we are working positively with so many people to help this species.”

Habitat restoration and prevention of road collision mortality for desert tortoises are the top priorities of Averill-Murray and his collaborators.

“Invasive grasses such as cheatgrass and red brome take up a lot of space and are less nutritious to desert tortoises than native plants,” said Averill-Murray. “That alone can cause tortoises to be more susceptible to illness and disease.”

In addition, red brome infested habitats are extremely susceptible to fire risks due to their dense thickets.

Desert tortoises are amazingly resilient creatures, built to withstand the harsh desert environment, says Averill-Murray. "Even when we translocate tortoises to new and unfamiliar areas, they seem to figure things out and survive," he said.  Credit: Roy Averill-Murray

In the early 1990s: Biologist Roy Averill-Murray, doing
field work in Peru early in his career. Credit: Courtesy
of Roy Averill-Murray/USFWS

“When lightning strikes or a cigarette is flipped out of a car window, that tiny spark can burn through large expanses of habitat, scorching tons of vegetation, including larger plants that provide essential cover and shelter from predation and heat,” he said. “Fires can even kill tortoises directly due to their inability to escape fast enough.”

The biologist and his team have been able to counteract these threats over the years by trying different restoration methods, such as repopulating native plants in burned areas to reduce the amount of brome. This will lead to lower fire risks in desert tortoise habitats.

In order to limit desert tortoise mortality on roads, desert tortoise fencing has been installed up and down a stretch of Interstate 40 along the Mojave Desert and throughout most major highways in Nevada.

On top of his various recovery projects, Averill-Murray and his team are applying more efficient translocation health protocols, as well.

“One of the biggest improvements we’re doing now with translocations involve comprehensive health assessments on the tortoises,” he said. “In order to reduce disease spreading, we’re looking at the tortoises holistically to see if they’re healthy or not and will carefully evaluate both the recipient and source population to make sure we’re not moving sick tortoises around.”

Species conservation requires a lot of work and energy; however, Averill-Murray has a positive outlook on his projects.

Roy Averill-Murray weighs a Mojave desert tortoise during a  field health assessment recently. “One of the biggest improvements we’re doing now with translocations involve comprehensive health assessments on the tortoises,” he said. Credit; Kimberleigh Field/USFWS

“The idea of a tortoise in the desert is really wild to begin with, especially how they’ve outlasted the dinosaurs,” said Averill-Murray. “Desert tortoises are amazingly resilient creatures, built to withstand the harsh desert environment. For example, even when we translocate tortoises to new and unfamiliar areas, they seem to figure things out and survive a lot better than many other species.

"If our new strategic approach to conservation takes the pressure off the species by identifying and alleviating key threats, hopefully the desert tortoise's natural resilience will take over and allow populations to bounce back.”


Rebecca Fabbri is a partnership public affairs specialist with the Pacific Southwest Region External Affairs Office, located in Sacramento, Calif.