Hidden Gem: The Desert Tortoise

The Mojave Desert tortoise is one of many fascinating creatures roaming the Greater Zion landscape. Slow but steady, threatened but resilient, desert tortoises are essential to the desert ecosystem.

This little guy is a big deal

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The desert tortoise, or Gopherus agassizii, is a keystone species. This title is given to species who go above and beyond to help the entire ecosystem by contributing something critical. 

The desert tortoise’s contribution is digging burrows, earning it the nickname “engineer of the desert.” Their claws, shell, and stature (8-15 inches long) are all perfectly adapted to plow through the sand. 

Desert tortoises dig burrows to hibernate through cold winter temperatures and to take a break from intense summer heat. Several other species like the Gila monster, sidewinder rattlesnake, chuckwalla, and peregrine falcon use them too. In fact, they depend on the tortoise burrows to survive – talk about a master architect! Without desert tortoises and their burrows, life in the desert would look much different.

Wait – what the shell?

Watch for wildlife (desert tortoise) sign with a background of r

Unfortunately, the possibility of life without the desert tortoise is very real due to a variety of factors including:

Development – As the popularity of desert communities grows, so does the demand for development. Many desert tortoise habitats have been eliminated due to residential and commercial development. 

Human intervention – Darn those meddling humans, especially the ones who violate stewardship best practices by driving recklessly or taking tortoises out of their habitat to keep as pets. Not cool … and it’s illegal

Upper Respiratory Tract Disease – This illness likely first developed among desert tortoises that were illegally kept as pets. When released back among their peers in the wild, the illness spread among the entire population. If not detected and treated correctly, upper respiratory tract disease can be fatal.

There’s still hope for our favorite slowpokes

Luckily, there are expert biologists in Greater Zion who have mastered the science of desert tortoise preservation. Enter the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve

The folks at conservation organizations like the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve are the only ones who can give tortoises the resources and assistance they need to survive because, in addition to their keystone species classification, desert tortoises are also considered a conservation-reliant species. 

In the wild, the desert tortoise can be found roaming the Mojave Desert anywhere from California to Arizona. In Greater Zion specifically, the tortoises like to hang out in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, where they are carefully monitored by biologists. If the biologists notice any issues with the tortoises, they give the tortoises a little extra TLC before safely returning them to their habitat. 

The biologists aren’t the only ones who make a positive impact on desert tortoises’ lives; your dedication to practicing good stewardship does too. When it comes to desert tortoises, you need to let them be. Leave No Trace and Land of Forever principles recommend 25 feet or more between you and any desert tortoise or wildlife in the wild.  

There is one very important exception, though: if a tortoise is in immediate danger, help! For example, move a tortoise out of the road if there is a car coming – that’s not a very fair race. Make sure you aren’t endangering yourself, then carefully pick up the tortoise and take him to the other side of the road in the direction that he is traveling. We promise, you won’t be in trouble. If possible, set the tortoise down on the other side of nearby fencing or other barriers to keep him from wandering back into the road.
If you notice other, less time-sensitive concerns, you can contact Red Cliffs Desert Reserve for assistance at 435-301-7430. Or, if you’re interested in learning more about desert tortoises, you can stop by the Greater Zion Visitor Center to soak in the exhibits or chat with experts.