Red Rock Tortoises Preparing for Brumation

With the cooler weather of autumn finally upon us, the Red Rock Canyon Desert Tortoises are getting ready for brumation. Unlike hibernation in mammals, brumation in reptiles is not considered true sleep. Instead, their metabolisms, or body processes, slow down dramatically and they are mostly inactive during the winter. Sometimes desert tortoises will come out of their burrows on particularly warm winter days, or to have a drink if it rains, but otherwise they don’t move much in cold weather. If you want to learn more about the differences between brumation and hibernation, this blog is a great resource.

Red Rock Canyon Desert Tortoise, Shelby, relaxing outside her burrow.
Shelby’s not sure how to feel about waking up today…

To prepare for brumation, desert tortoises begin eating less as the weather gets cooler. When we think of mammals hibernating, we often imagine bears or squirrels gorging themselves to put on weight for the long winter months. Because desert tortoises’ bodies get so cool during cold weather, however, they cannot digest food during that time. It’s important that their digestive tracts are mostly empty before they begin brumation, or they could become ill. Going to bed on an empty stomach is a good thing for a tortoise!

Red Rock Canyon Desert Tortoises having breakfast.
(From left to right) Willie, Lucie, Libby, Betty, and Mae enjoying breakfast.

Friends of Red Rock Canyon volunteers will continue with feeding and soaking days through the end of September. The remaining feeding days will be at 8 a.m. on September 14th, 18th, 21st, 25th, and 28th. Soaking days will be at the same time (or later if the torts are sluggish in the mornings) on September 16th and 23rd. Come out and visit for your last chance to see some tort activity before next spring!

Happy 30th Birthday Max!

Max is the only tortoise in the enclosures behind the Visitor Center at Red Rock Canyon whose age is known. He was hatched at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in 1989. The rest of our tortoises are rescues so we can only make educated guesses as to their ages. With that in mind, we decided to have a party for Max’s 30th birthday on Saturday, April 27th, 2019.

Our human guests were treated to coffee and some adorable tortoise cupcakes from Daisy Cakes. The tortoises dined on tortoise chow and had kale for “dessert.”

Yum!

As the star of the show, Max naturally decided to sleep in a bit. Everyone else was awake bright and early, and they eagerly dug into their breakfasts. Lucie and a couple of the other girls were already finished with the tort chow and had moved onto their kale by the time Max woke up at 9 a.m. Tortoises should never eat sweets, but we couldn’t help getting a quick shot of Max and a tort cupcake. He seemed interested!

*Sniff sniff*

Maybe the sweet smell of cupcake whetted his appetite, because Max finished his chow in record time. Then he demolished the fresh kale, stem and all.

Happy 30th, Max. Here’s to many more!

Tortoise Feeding and Soaking Days

Each spring the Red Rock Stars emerge from brumation (like hibernation for reptiles) on different days, depending on how warm the weather has been. This year Hugo was the first to come out, on March 1!

Hugo sleepily basking to warm himself.

A couple weeks after emergence, Friends of Red Rock Canyon volunteers begin feeding the tortoises each Wednesday and Saturday at 8 a.m. When the weather is cooler the torts’ metabolisms are slower, so they don’t eat as much or as quickly as when the weather is hot. Because of this, in the spring and fall they might slowly eat their breakfasts over the course of a couple hours. During the summer, however, they are often waiting for volunteers right at 8, and gobble up their food quickly!

Betty knows how to enjoy herself!

As with feeding, soaking days – or “spa days” as we call them – begin a couple weeks after emergence from brumation. On Mondays volunteers soak the torts for about 20 minutes in a couple inches of water. Soaking helps to keep the torts hydrated, and to clean their shells so volunteers can more easily identify them. The soaking schedule alternates so that Hugo gets soaked one Monday, then Max and the girls get soaked the following Monday.

Two of the girls getting squeaky-clean.

If you want to see the Rock Stars in action, make sure to visit them on these mornings from mid-May to late September. You can check our calendar for specific dates: https://friendsredrock.org/current-events/

Desert Tortoises and Upper Respiratory Tract Disease

Desert Tortoises are well-equipped to live in the harsh environment of the Mojave. Despite their hardiness, both wild and captive tortoises are susceptible to diseases that can be fatal if not treated. We’re going to take a brief look at a disease of particular concern among tortoise caretakers and conservationists.

Arguably the most common disease among Desert Tortoises is Upper Respiratory Tract Disease, or URTD. It is a chronic disease caused by a bacteria called Mycoplasma agassizii (Agassizii is the Latin species name for Mojave Desert Tortoises: Gopherus agassizii). These bacteria attack the soft, moist skin inside tortoises’ nasal passages and throats, and gives them a constant runny nose. While this may not sound so dangerous, it can completely block tortoises’ nares, or nostrils.

What symptoms should you look for in a pet tortoise? First of all, watch for a runny nose or clogged nares. Also keep an eye out for white crust around the nares, which can be caused by nasal discharge that has dried. Make sure to listen to your tortoise breathe. There shouldn’t be any gurgles, clicking, or whistling sounds. Take a look at your tortoise’s eyes: are they sunken, or are the eyelids puffy and swollen? Is there discharge from the eyes? These are all signs of URTD. Finally, if your tortoise is lethargic during a time when she should be active, this could be a sign of illness.

There is no cure for URTD, though certain antibiotics can be used to treat the symptoms. If a tortoise catches URTD, he will have it for life, and it can be passed from tortoise to tortoise. This is one of the many reasons why it is so important to NEVER release captive tortoises into the wild. Wild tortoises are under more stress than captive tortoises, so while URTD might not kill a pet tortoise, it can easily be fatal to a wild one.

Hopefully this information will help you care for your pet tortoise. Hopefully, one day, a cure will be found for URTD. More research is needed into this disease, and into Mojave Desert Tortoises in general. There is so much about these fascinating animals that we don’t know!

 

 

Hugo’s Great Vet Caper

Every spring and fall, Friends of Red Rock Canyon Tortoise Habitat Volunteers weigh and measure the shells of the tortoises in the enclosures behind the Visitor Center. Hugo was his normal, feisty self all summer but at the end of September volunteers discovered that he had lost some weight since they took his measurements in the spring. I decided that a check-up was in order, just to make sure Hugo was healthy before going into brumation for the winter.

On October 5 Hugo took a trip to his wonderful veterinarian at Lone Mountain Animal Hospital. She took x-rays to look for bladder stones, performed a complete blood panel, and a bile acids test to check Hugo’s liver function. He never enjoys being put into his large bin, but despite that he munched on the bribery kale that I offered.

Snacking on some bribery kale.

The x-rays showed no bladder stones, which are frequently a problem in tortoises, so that was excellent news! All of his blood work and the bile acids test looked good as well, but his CPK (creatine phosphokinase) levels were elevated. This can happen in reptiles simply from the stress of going to the vet and being handled. Hugo’s veterinarian recommended an ultrasound, however, just to be safe.

Hugo is so large that his whole body couldn’t fit in one x-ray!

That meant another trip to the vet, and this time Hugo was on to me. The first time I stopped by to bring him back to the vet, he was outside his burrow. However, by the time I’d gotten his bin, he had scurried several feet back into his burrow. No luck that day! I checked again the next day, but due to the chill in the air he was still inside. I finally had luck the third day, October 12, when he was basking near the wall of his enclosure. Back to the vet we went!

The ultrasound was taken through his plastron, which is the underside of the shell.

Hugo didn’t enjoy his ultrasound, but the doctor and techs were very gentle and careful with him. Thankfully, all his insides looked normal and healthy. I’m very happy that Hugo can go into brumation with a clean bill of health, and I’m sure Hugo is pleased that he won’t be going back to the vet for a while!

Aah, back to his normal routine! He even has a kale mustache.

Torts with Personality

Our Tortoises are the Rock Stars at Red Rock Canyon’s Visitor Center.

Our team of volunteers tender-lovingly care for them, and visitors of all ages delight in watching them go about their daily lives – from eating and interacting.

Meet each one of them:

BETTY

Betty, like most of the other females in the habitat, is likely in her 40s. She weighs about 8 pounds and is 11 inches long. She has a very symmetrical shell, and the back scute on her shell looks a little like half a “B” turned on its side.

HUGO

Hugo is at least 50 years old. He weighs 31 pounds, which is twice as large as a normal male Mojave Desert Tortoise! He was abandoned in a back yard with a bag of dog food. Tortoises are herbivorous, so we think the poor diet made him grow too large and deformed his shell and gular horn. Since 2012 Hugo has been eating a healthy vegetarian diet and is doing well.

 

LIBBY

Libby is the largest female in the habitat. She weighs almost 11 pounds and is 14 inches long. She has a beautiful, perfectly rounded shell. Because of this she could right herself if she ever flipped over.

LUCIE

Lucie is the oldest, smallest, and smartest of the adult females. She weighs 6.5 pounds and is 11 inches long. She has a very indented shell due to poor nutrition in her youth. Sometimes she pushes little Roxie around like a bulldozer.

MAE

Mae weighs almost 8 pounds and is 11 inches long. She looks a lot like Betty, but has a notch in her shell near her neck. Do you see it?

MAX

Max hatched in 1989. He weighs 15.5 pounds and is 16 inches long. Sometimes he can be a picky eater. He likes to hang out in one corner of his enclosure in the mornings to warm up in the sun.

ROXIE

Roxie is tiny and adorable! She is about 5 years old, weighs almost 3 pounds, and is 9 inches long. She moved to Red Rock in July, 2017 and is growing quickly. She came from a home that had 40 tortoises in the back yard!

SHELBY

Shelby is at least 45 years old. She weighs almost 9 pounds and is 12 inches long. Most Desert Tortoises have 13 scutes, but Shelby has one extra. Can you find it? Shelby is usually the last girl to come out for breakfast.

WILLIE

Willie weighs almost 9 pounds and is 12 inches long. She laid 8 eggs in 2014. The back scute on her shell looks a little like a “W” – like her name!

 

Meet Tortoise Habitat Coordinator Chelsea Conlin

I grew up on the East Coast, but it turns out that I’m a desert rat at heart.

Until I moved to Vegas at the end of 2011, I’d always lived in fairly temperate places: Upstate New York, Rhode Island, northern Japan, Colorado, and Kentucky. There is something to be said for the rolling green hills back East, but I immediately fell in love with the sharper desert landscape.

Without all that greenery covering everything, you can really appreciate the geology of the Southwest. The harshness of the Mojave Desert has also made me appreciate the incredible toughness and adaptability of the plants and animals here. The beauty of the desert is undeniable.

One of the first things I did after getting settled in Vegas was to take my dogs hiking at Red Rock Canyon. I had done some hiking previously, but Red Rock was where my love of hiking blossomed. I quickly learned that plants here are very pointy and probably shouldn’t be touched, and that getting on the trail by sunrise affords the most astonishingly beautiful views of the mountains around Red Rock.

It wasn’t until several years later that I began volunteering with Friends of Red Rock Canyon (FORRC), and it snowballed from there. I’ve always had a passion for giving back, but no organization that I’ve worked with makes it as easy and fun as does FORRC. I’m on several of the dedicated volunteer teams, including Light Trail Maintenance, the Native Plant Team, Natural Resources, and of course, the Tortoise Team.

I fell in love with Red Rock Canyon’s rescued Mojave Desert Tortoises as soon as I met them. I never would have guessed that tortoises could have such individual personalities, but I soon learned how wrong I was.  Meet each one of them.

I love and respect all animals, and it’s been an amazing opportunity to work so closely with a threatened species.

Educating visitors about the Mojave Desert Tortoise has been a very important part of my time as a volunteer. I want to help protect them for their own sakes – and for future generations of people to appreciate as well.

To that end, I’ll be attending a two-day course with the Desert Tortoise Council in November. I hope to learn even more about tortoises so that I can make our little (or in Hugo’s case, not so little) friends’ lives as enriching as possible. I also aim to give our extremely dedicated volunteers, as well as visitors to the tortoise habitat, a rewarding and fun experience.

I often think about how much richer my life has become thanks to the Mojave Desert, FORRC, and the tortoises. I couldn’t ask for more!

Donate to the Tortoise habitat HERE

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

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.