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

Up Close and Personal – Morning with the Tortoise Team

Every morning, the Friends’ Tortoise team visits the Tortoise habitat at Red Rock Canyon to tend to our most famous residents.

If you want to become a volunteer team member, you will be trained and scheduled as a habitat worker. You will be sure they are watered and examine them for ticks, among your duties. You will contribute to record keeping for the 10 Desert Tortoises as well as coordinate routine maintenance. You often work in cooperation with the Master Gardeners.

Contact Chelsea Conlin to learn more about volunteering.

Get to know each of our special tortoises. Click here.

How BLM protects the Desert Tortoise. Click here.

Here’s a photo gallery of a typical morning in the habitat while tending to the residents:

Rock Stars of Red Rock Canyon – Tortoise Updates

One of the most popular volunteer positions – and visitor attractions – at Red Rock Canyon is the Desert Tortoise Habitat, home of the nine resident Rock Stars. The habitat, established in 1995, has provided education and entertainment to well over a million visitors.

Friends of Red Rock Canyon provides the funding to support the “Kids” in the habitat, ranging from the blue booties to the delicious and nutritious Tort Chow. We also pay for annual medical exams to keep the kids healthy.

The kids are fed on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and enjoy Spa Day on Monday. We’d suggest you come close to 8 a.m. if you’d like to watch the kids enjoy breakfast or spa treatment. They tend to head back into their burrows early to avoid the summer heat. What is Spa Day? Each tort has a designated soaking bin that we fill with a few inches of water. The biweekly soaking helps keep the torts hydrated plus they really seem to enjoy it.

Visitor Center Tort Display

There is a fabulous new display at the Visitor Center featuring the Red Rock Tortoises!!It has info about each tort, photos of the volunteers in action and explains in a fun way about tortoise activities, needs and care.

We’ll also be updating it as each tortoise emerges. Pat Williams and Sue Kolar put it together and Friends of Red Rock Canyon provided the funds. It will be up until the end of April, be sure to check it out!

Rosie update

We are very sad to report that Rosie, one of our newest Rock Stars, was euthanized following some serious health issues.

Rosie joined the Red Rock family in July 2017 and was found to have a very large bladder stone in late September. Friend’s wonderful veterinarian, Dr. Lee, recommended that the stone be removed after the first of the year.

Click here to see her x-rays.

Rosie had surgery to remove the bladder stone in early January and seemed to be recovering nicely. She then went into decline and, in spite of the remarkable efforts of Dr. Lee to keep her going (including a feeding tube), she just wasn’t healthy enough to survive. The autopsy revealed that Rosie had a pre-existing liver condition which was likely the primary cause of her rapid decline.

This sad event reinforces our mission of providing annual health check-ups for all of the Rock Stars. Our education efforts will continue to stress that the desert tortoises will live longer lives with proactive medical care.

Sadly, Rosie’s medical costs have almost wiped out our medical account.

You can help us by making a tax-deductible donation to the Tort Medical Fund.

Tort Medical Fund donation

You may process your donation using Paypal by clicking here:

 

Or mail your donation of cash or check payable to Friends of Red Rock Canyon to:

Friends of Red Rock Canyon
1000 Scenic Drive
Las Vegas, NV  89161

Please include a note that the donation is for the Tort Medical Fund.

Upcoming feeding and spa schedule

Day Date Task
Wednesday May 30, 2018 Feeding day for all torts
Saturday June 02, 2018 Feeding day for all torts
Monday June 04, 2018 Soaking Hugo
Wednesday June 06, 2018 Feeding day for all torts
Saturday June 09, 2018 Feeding day for all torts
Monday June 11, 2018 Soaking Max and the girls
Wednesday June 13, 2018 Feeding day for all torts
Saturday June 16, 2018 Feeding day for all torts
Monday June 18, 2018 Soaking Hugo
Wednesday June 20, 2018 Feeding day for all torts
Saturday June 23, 2018 Feeding day for all torts
Monday June 25, 2018 Soaking Max and the girls
Wednesday June 27, 2018 Feeding day for all torts
Saturday June 30, 2018 Feeding day for all torts

Protecting Red Rock Canyon’s Desert Tortoises

Bureau of Land Management

The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is a gentle reptile which spends much of its life in underground burrows. The burrows are excavated by the animals to escape the harsh summer and winter weather conditions of the desert.

The animal historically occupied a range that included the desert in southeastern California, southern Nevada, western and southern Arizona, southwestern Utah, and Sonora and northern Sinaloa, Mexico. Today, the creature’s populations are largely fragmented, although it can be found in declining numbers in most parts of its former range.

Tortoise emerge from their burrows in late winter or early spring and in the autumn to feed and mate.

The reptile can be active during the summer if temperatures are moderate. The desert tortoise is the largest reptile in the southwest. Unlike other reptiles which are often feared by man, the desert tortoise is an appealing creature which has become a popular pet, perhaps to its detriment. One reason for its appeal is that the animal is not a threat, but rather a vegetarian, eating a wide variety of herbaceous vegetation. One of its treats is the flower of annual plants.

Tortoise emerge from their burrows in late winter or early spring and in the autumn to feed and mate.

The reptile can be active during the summer if temperatures are moderate.  The desert tortoise is the largest reptile in the southwest. Unlike other reptiles which are often feared by man, the desert tortoise is an appealing creature which has become a popular pet, perhaps to its detriment. One reason for its appeal is that the animal is not a threat, but rather a vegetarian, eating a wide variety of herbaceous vegetation.  One of its treats is the flower of annual plants.

Unfortunately, the slow moving reptile is vulnerable to a number of threats which could led to the demise of the species.  These concerns lead to a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1984 to consider listing the desert tortoise under the Federal Endangered Species Act.  After further evaluation and public hearings, the tortoise was permanently listed as threatened on April 2, 1990.

Major problems which appear to affect the tortoise in all or part of its range include:

  • Loss or degradation of habitat because of off-road vehicles, military desert training maneuvers, various kinds of mineral extraction activities, grazing by cattle and sheep, and agricultural-residential development.
  • Taking of individuals for pets and other forms of collection.  Also, some animals have been killed outright or their shells mutilated in acts of vandalism.
  • Excessive predation of juveniles by other species such as coyotes, foxes and ravens.
  • Fragmentation of populations because of urbanization, highways and various rights-of-way associated with electric transmission lines, pipelines, etc.
  • A respiratory disease has been found in some tortoise populations, and it is suspected the disease may have been introduced by infected tortoise pets whose owners have returned them to the wild.

What protection comes with a listing?

Under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the desert tortoise population is protected from “taking,” which includes harming, killing or harassing desert tortoise or removing them from the wild.  Violations are punishable by a fine and jail term.  The law requires Federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service if a proposed project they plan to authorize, fund or carry out may affect the species.  The Section 7 consultation process evaluates the impacts of the proposed action and determines whether the proposed action might jeopardize the continued existence of the species.

The Endangered Species Act — Section 10(a)(1)(A) — permits taking of tortoises for research. It is under this provision that the tortoises in The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center have been obtained. The tortoises in this center have been brought to this location under a joint research permit held by the Bureau of Land Management, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy.

Tort Tattler – Changes in the Habitat

It was such a crazy spring that the first tortoise didn’t come out until mid-March. Usually Betty comes out the first week of February, but she must have been stuck at the back of a burrow. Willie
was the first one out on March 12. Roxie, our five-year-old, two-pound tortoise made it through the
winter.

She snuggled up next to Shelby in the deepest burrow. By the beginning of April, all of the tortoises were out.

It didn’t take long for the tortoises to warm up and start eating. Volunteers feed the tortoises
every Wednesday and Saturday morning through the end of September. The tortoises are waiting for us at 8 a.m. when the Visitor Center opens. If the weather is mild, they may take an hour or more to finish eating. If it’s hot, they can clean their plates in half an hour!

Every Monday morning the volunteers soak the tortoises. It’s always fun to see their colorful clean
shells after a soak.

In early June, Chelsea and Sue took Max to the vet for a check-up. Max weighs 15 and a half pounds. The vet examined him and he doesn’t have a bladder stone and is in good health. He was actually good in the car.

Most tortoises think that it very unnatural to go 65 miles an hour!

*******

You may have heard that we are retiring as Tort Team Leads at the end of the season. We’re happy to tell you that Chelsea Conlin will be taking over in October. Chelsea is originally from upstate
New York and lived in Japan and Kentucky before moving to Las Vegas six years ago. You probably already know her as she’s volunteered in the habitat and on other Friends Teams at Red Rock.

We’ll be working together for the rest of the season to make for a seamless transition. The torts won’t even notice!

If you’d like to join the Tort Team, we’re having the last training session of the year in August.

Email us at torts@friendsofredrockcanyon.org for more information.

We’ll see you in the habitat!

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.