Desert Tortoise

Carol Lerew
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter

In folklore the tortoise’s slow and steady pace wins the race against the hare. Reality is a different story, for one of its kind, the desert tortoise, is running neck and neck against extinction. Will it ultimately survive the destruction of its habitat, infectious diseases, and various predators?

Gopherus agassizii is found in the Mojave and Colorado deserts. The other species, Goperhus morafkai occurs east of the Colorado River in Arizona as well as in northern Mexico. Terrestrial, with a domed horn-brown shell and round, stumpy, elephant-like legs, the desert tortoise can live about 30 to 50 years. Its front limbs are flattened for digging and are heavily scaled; toes are webless. The head is a reddish tan, small and rounded with black scales. It grows slowly, often taking 16 years or longer to mature and may attain a length of 10 to 14 inches, with males a little larger than females.

Desert tortoises dig burrows in washes, canyon bottoms and oases surrounded by creosote, thorn scrub, and cacti. Most of their lives are spent in burrows which they often share with other reptiles, mammals, birds and invertebrates. They feed on grasses and other vegetable matter in the morning and late afternoon. Hibernation period runs roughly from November to February-April.

When two males meet, they bob their heads rapidly, rushing toward each other—one trying to overturn the other. Mating occurs in the spring and fall. Later, the females will lay a clutch of four to eight hard-shelled eggs that resemble the size and shape of ping pong balls. The eggs will hatch in August or September.

Because desert tortoises are listed as an endangered species, certain areas in the Mojave and Colorado deserts have been set aside as refuges. Scientists hope such protective measures will help the population to rebound. State laws have made it a crime to collect one from the wild or to engage in any activity destructive of its habitat. Although none of these gentle creatures resides at RSABG, at least one RSABG volunteers has a pet desert tortoise. Several organizations in Southern California are dedicated to the rescue, adoption and care of turtles and tortoises. If you are interested in knowing more, please visit