Desert Tortoise

April 4, 2015 at 11:11 am (California, Nature, Nature photography, Photography, Wildlife) (, , )


Watching desert tortoises isn’t as bad as watching paint dry.  They might freeze up if you approach them, but within a few minutes they will probably resume their foraging, or walking, or whatever.


They are in the same genus as the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) I’ve photographed in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia, but these guys are adapted to live in a very dry climate.


The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) spends 95 percent of its time in one of its several burrows, brumating (a type of hibernation) in winter and estivating (being inactive during hot, dry weather) in summer.  So right now, early spring, is THEIR time for eating succulent green plants and storing up water in their large bladders to last them through the lean times.


Their mouths are often smeared with green juice or, like this one, purple from flowers, most likely the Mojave aster that was blooming in the Rainbow Basin Natural Area, Barstow, California, where this guy/gal was found.

Mojave Aster

Mojave Aster

This was a pretty warm day for the end of March, so a second, smaller tortoise my friend and I spotted was happy for the shade we provided.


Watch the video to see this one crawl right up to Chris and plop down in her shadow.


Here he/she is in my shadow.  They seek shade under cars, too, so if in tortoise country it’s a good idea to make sure there’s nobody underneath before you drive off.


Desert tortoises grow up to 15 inches in length (measured by the top shell or carapace), and can live 50 to 80 years.  They don’t breed until they are around 15 years old.



We also saw a large chuckwalla, which is related to the Gila monster.

Tortoises, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act, should not be picked up or frightened, as they may void their bladder-canteens which jeapordizes their ability to survive in the desert.  If they are in danger of being run over, you may move them.  Let them see you approach, hold by the sides of the shell, and keep them low to the ground as you move them 50 to 100 yards off the road in the direction they were traveling.


As the Bureau of Land Management website states, “If you find a tortoise in the desert, DO take pictures, get down and look at it (but not so close that you disturb it). Watch to see how it moves and what it eats, then walk away and know that you have done a good deed by letting it live in peace.”

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  1. DesertAbba said,

    If you keep this stuff up, you are going to become a real wildlife photographer! Again, a great job. Love it when he/she seeks the shelter of the shadow.

  2. Pam Leonard said,

    Good tip about not disturbing them. I move turtles all the time up here in the north and wouldn’t have known the dehydration danger involved in moving desert ones.

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