Desert Tortoise

Desert Tortoise


Western Arizona, north to southern Utah and west to southeast California. Also in Sonora, Mexico


Deserts and other arid regions. They can live in harsh environmental conditions with extreme temperatures and very little moisture.


The carapace is highly domed with prominent growth lines on the shields. The forelimbs are covered with large scales and when drawn in they fill the entire front shell opening, which provides excellent protection. The tail is very short. The head is small and rounded in the front.

Desert Tortoise

The desert tortoise is a timid animal that can travel up to 20 feet per minute, if not diverted by a succulent plant. Burrows are frequently dug at the base of bushes and may be 3 – 30 feet long. Short tunnels offer temporary shelter. Longer ones are used for hibernation or estivation where as many as 25 tortoises congregate. As an adaption to desert life, the desert tortoise requires little drinking water. Moisture is derived from plant foods and may be stored in two sacs found under the carapace.


Mating usually occurs in the spring. The male approaches the female with its head extended and bobbing. Males possess a gular hook, a horny protrusion of the plastron (bottom shell). This hook is used when they compete for females. Males will charge each other in attempts to flip the other. The winner is left right side up and the loser must struggle to right itself before heat exhaustion takes place. Banks of compacted sand or dry creek washes provide adequate ground moisture for egg incubation. Females lay 2 – 3 clutches of 2 – 14 hard, chalky, elliptical white eggs in a funnel-shaped nest 6 inches deep. The inch and a half long hatchlings emerge after a 3 – 5 month incubation. Individuals mature between 15 and 20 years of age.

Interesting Facts:

Though adapted to life in the desert, these tortoises spend the hot part of the day in their underground burrow. They are able to store water for up to one year. If a tortoise is picked up by a predator, they will release this water in a defensive manner. If you see a tortoise in the wild, leave it on the ground so it can retain the water it has worked hard to store, and keep you dry too. Tortoise tracks consist of a series of parallel rows of rounded dents with sand heaped at the rear of each track.

Desert Tortoise

It it ILLEGAL to disturb or collect desert tortoises--the eggs, young, or adults. They are presently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This is due to human development and use of desert regions.

Did YOU Know?    
Desert tortoises are the largest tortoise in North America.
Desert Tortoise
Native Utah Animal
Class: reptiles
Order: Testudines
Family: Testudinidae
Genus: Gopherus
Species: agassizii
Length: 9-15 inches
Weight: 8-15 lbs
Average Lifespan: 50+ years
Wild Diet: Leaves, fruit, stems, cactus, and especially perennial grasses are its main diet
Predators: Rats, coyotes and birds eat the young. Man collects them for pets.
USFWS Status: Endangered
CITES Status: Appendix II
Where at the Zoo? Small Animal Building: Desert Zone

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