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Animal Spotlight:  The California Desert Tortoise

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Animal Updates | Reptiles | Conservation | Volunteering

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Earlier this year, fellow blogger and marine mammal volunteer Hugh introduced our readers to the Aquarium’s Program Animals. Just because we’re an Aquarium doesn’t mean you won’t find a few terrestrial animals here and there! Our Program Animals, made up of a group of reptiles, birds, and mammals, serve as animal ambassadors by helping us educate our guests about the importance of the relationships between the land and the ocean, as well as promoting habitat conservation on a global scale. Keep an eye out for Melissa, our Program Keeper, and her staff because chances are good that they will have some kind of critter out on the floor for you to meet and learn about. I recently joined the family of Program Animal volunteers, and I would like to share some wonderful information with our readers about one of my favorite program animals: Borrego, the California desert tortoise!

Since his arrival a little over a year ago, Borrego has become a favorite of many of the Aquarium’s staff and visitors alike. I have always had a huge affinity for turtles and tortoises, so having this robust little reptile around is always such a treat! Tortoises are different from turtles, in that they live entirely on land instead of living in water, and they have stumpy, round feet for movement on land instead of webbed feet adapted for swimming. The California desert tortoise (Gopherus (Xerobates) agassiz) can reach a carapace length of anywhere from 9 - 15 inches and is perfectly adapted for living in the dry desert environment.

What do they eat?
Desert tortoises are herbivores, meaning their diet is made up of plants such as herbs, grasses, shrubs, cacti, and flowers. Here at the Aquarium, Borrego is offered a daily smorgasbord of greens and vegetables and he is quite an enthusiastic eater!

All animals have adaptations that help them to survive in their environment. Since the desert tortoise lives in what can be a very hot, very dry environment, they have strong, column-like legs with well-developed claws for digging burrows to escape the heat. They have a large urinary bladder for storing water, and can survive for a year or more without access to water!

Amazing Facts
* The life span of a desert tortoise can be 60 - 80 years, and it’s very likely that they can live even longer!
* These animals are able to live in areas where the temperature may exceed 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) !
* They spend at least 95% of their lives in burrows.

Desert tortoises are a threatened species living in a threatened habitat and are protected by state and federal laws making it illegal to remove these animals from their natural environment. Natural predators of these animals include coyotes, foxes, ravens and roadrunners which feed on juvenile tortoises that are very small with a thin, delicate shell.

Human activity, of course, is the biggest threat to these intriguing and amazing animals. Many individuals are lost due to poaching, illegal collection for the pet trade, vandalism, or being killed by automobiles. Their natural habitat and food sources are disappearing because of urban and agricultural development and grazing livestock. Garbage dumps are bringing in larger than usual numbers of predatory ravens, and desert tortoises are also now faced with extremely harmful upper respiratory diseases.

The decisions we make every day can have an impact on our environment and on animals like Borrego. If you’d like to help the desert tortoise, learn more about them and educate yourself about desert conservation issues! Not only that, but don’t be afraid to make your voice heard and speak up for animals that are unable to speak for themselves.

Animal Spotlight:  The California Desert Tortoise
Borrego cruising around his enclosure.  | Staci Peters

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