Desert tortoise

A Q & A with Chelsea Conlin, Tortoise Habitat Team Leader

Chelsea Conlin

Roger and Sue Kolar, our longtime chairs of the Tortoise Habitat Team, are turning over their responsibilities to newcomer Chelsea Conlin.

Here,  she answers questions we receive about our tortoises. Share your questions with her at torts@friendsofredrockcanyon.org.

 

Chelsea is happy to make a presentation about our desert tortoises to schools and organizations.

What’s the difference between turtles and tortoises?

Turtles live in and around water. Tortoises live on land and cannot swim. Tortoises and turtles are pretty unique-looking!

What are their closest living relatives?

Turtles and tortoises are most closely related to birds and crocodiles! Surprisingly, they are less closely related to lizards and snakes.

How can you tell male and female Mojave Desert Tortoises apart?

Adult males grow larger than females. This is called sexual dimorphism. Males and females have some other distinguishing characteristics:

  • Females have flat plastrons  (underside  of the shell, like the tortoise’s belly) and males have concave plastrons.
  • Males have a larger, curved gular horn on the front of their plastron; females have a short, straight one.
  • Females have shorter tails than males.
  • Adult males have glands on their chins that are enlarged during mating season.

I know I should leave wild tortoises alone. But what if I find one on a busy road?

In that case, you should very slowly approach the tortoise so that they don’t get scared. If they get scared they will sometimes urinate, which will cause them to lose all their water stores, and they can die of dehydration.

Carefully lift the tortoise just off the ground and slowly carry them in the direction they were already heading. Bring the tortoise at least 50 feet  (15    m) from the road and place them under a bush for shade. If the tortoise did urinate, you can try to dig a small depression in the ground near their head and pour water into it. Hopefully the tortoise will drink.

How fast can tortoises move?

They can walk at a speed of 0.3-7.3 hours per mile  (0.5-12  hours per km),  but  cannot  sustain  a fast pace for long, or they might overheat.

Do tortoises hibernate?

No, tortoises brumate. It’s very similar to hibernation in mammals, but tortoises are not truly asleep when they brumate, unlike mammals hibernating. Their metabolism just slows down dramatically. They will come out to drink if it rains in the winter, and sometimes baby tortoises will eat during that time, as well.

Do tortoises dig their own burrows?

Yes, they are excellent diggers. Their summer burrows  are  generally             fairly short: 3-4 feet (0.9-1.2 m) deep.  Winter burrows, or dens, can be up to 30 feet (9.1  m) long!  This protects the tortoise from the coldest winter weather.

Are tortoises’ solitary animals?

Yes and no. They do not spend all their time with other tortoises, like wolves spend time with others in their pack. However, their social lives are surprisingly complex! Males, especially, will travel miles to visit the females in their territory, which can  be  up to 220 acres (0.34  square  miles/0.55  km).

Tortoises have friends who live near them, and also tortoises who they don’t like and will avoid.

What do tortoises eat?

Tortoises are herbivorous, meaning they only eat plants. The only exception is that sometimes very young tortoises will eat insects. Generally, tortoises prefer  soft, water-filled annual  plants and flowers, but once those start to dry up in summer tortoises mostly switch to eating dry grasses to put on weight for winter brumation. Unfortunately, invasive grass species like Red brome can injure tortoises with their sharp points if the tortoise tries to eat them.

When do baby tortoises hatch?

Baby tortoises are called hatchlings. They emerge from their eggs between mid-August and October. Typically, they do not eat before brumation because they have a store of energy from their yolk sac. Just ask Chelsea about the Rock Stars.

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