It appears a simple life, but observe the shiny eyes of a desert tortoise and you’ll find an awareness there, his measuring of you. I’ve left my rare tortoise encounters reluctantly, the power of my gaze never enough to solve the enigma. Perhaps the tortoise’s presence comes from his ancient lineage which dates back 50 million years. Perhaps it’s the stubborn struggle his lifestyle represents.
The desert tortoise can survive an entire year without drinking water, but given the opportunity will drink deeply from pools of rainwater. He also absorbs moisture from green plants and cactus fruits he eats. This is accumulated in his large bladder where large amounts of water can be stored along with the urinary wastes. This water becomes available to the tortoise due to his built in waste disposal system. A well hydrated tortoise can add dry plants and forage to his menu.
The desert tortoise lives out his life in a 1-2 mile range that’s centered around his burrow. The burrow insulates the cold-blooded reptile from extremes of hot and cold and allows him to moderate his body temperature. The tortoises hibernate from October to March in a typical year.
Activity peaks in the monsoon season when desert tortoises journey in search of food and mates. These reptiles don’t breed until they are at least 12 years old, and some not until 20. With luck many of a tortoise pair’s 3-12 eggs will hatch. The hatchlings emerge in the fall measuring just two inches across. They have soft shells and are extremely vulnerable to a wide range of predators.
It’s against the law to take a desert tortoise out of the desert, as this is a protected species. Individuals taken away from the habitat and then returned present a disease risk for the rest of the population. Even picking a tortoise up can cause it to release the precious contents of its bladder, which may mean death in a dry year.
People interested in adopting rescued orphans may provide custody for a non-releasable tortoise if they agree to meet feeding, burrowing and shelter requirements for the animal. More information at Arizona Game and Fish Department.