Slow and steady

  • Illustration of desert tortoise

    Evan Cantor

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

Desert tortoises don't have an easy childhood. Since the softer shells of baby tortoises make them easy prey for ravens and coyotes, less than 5 percent survive to adulthood. Tortoises who make it to maturity typically live long lives - they've been known to reach more than 50 years of age - unless they run into human predators.

Each summer, female tortoises dig shallow nests in the desert dunes with their hind legs. A typical clutch of five to seven eggs (a favorite meal of Gila monsters) takes three to four months to hatch. Newborn tortoises, usually about the size of a silver dollar, are on their own from birth.

During hot summer days, tortoises escape the sun by holing up in sandy burrows or sandstone caves, occasionally in groups of five or more. In the early mornings and late afternoons, they emerge to feast on tender desert plants, sometimes hoisting themselves up on their hind legs to munch on prickly pear cactus flowers.

Desert tortoises are found in southeastern California, southern Nevada, extreme southwestern Utah, southern Arizona, and the Mexican state of Sonora. Tortoises in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona are considered a separate population and are not federally listed.

Tortoises may be slow, but they can travel long distances. Adult tortoises have been known to hike more than half a mile in one day, their travels tracked by radio transmitters. Tortoises who have been moved from development sites have traveled even greater distances, trying to get home.