The last few weeks in the Mojave have been an exciting and productive time for me. Following the monsoon rains we had in July and August, large populations of annual plants appeared and flowered all over our field office. As we have moved into early fall, many of those populations have been producing and dispersing seeds, which means that there has been plenty of seed collecting for me to do. And that is a good thing.
But this blog will not be about seed collecting. The temperature has been dropping for the last few weeks (Hallelujah!), and as it gets cooler the plants have certainly been reacting, but they are not the only ones. The cooler weather has also caused an increase in activity for one of the Mojave Desert’s very charismatic reptiles: Desert Tortoises!
Mojave Desert Tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) are a Federally Threatened species. So they receive much management attention in the Needles Field Office. Earlier this summer, I was able to go out on a tortoise-monitoring trip. We used radio-telemetry to track down and record data from tortoises (more affectionately called “torts”) that had already been tagged with a radio transmitter. Quite the fun trip.
But that is not quite as satisfying as finding tortoises on your own, so I have been thrilled to find five of them in the last three weeks! After the hot summer, during which the tortoises are fairly inactive, the cooler fall gives them a chance to spend more time searching for food before they head underground to hibernate through the winter. So the time is now for me to find them, and the tortoises have delivered. I’ve seen big adults, an adorable baby, and I even had to rescue a tortoise that was trying to cross a highway. It has been great.
The Desert Tortoise is one of the most unique desert critters that I’ve seen in my time out here. Their appearance is probably familiar to you: a long neck with a beaked head on the end, thick scaly legs, and a hard, high-domed shell. The torts here in the Mojave can grow up to about 15 pounds and 15-inches long. I have heard stories about the impressive ages that tortoises can reach, perhaps even surpassing a century. 100 seems to be out of reach for the Desert Tortoises here, but they can get very old, living for more than 50 years in the wild, and perhaps approaching 80 in captivity. That may still be long enough to outlive me.
Tortoises have earned a fabled reputation as patient and deliberate creatures. That characterization is certainly appropriate. The tortoises I’ve seen have been content to take their time slowly ambling along the desert floor, unhurriedly taking in the shrubs and rocks that surround them. I think it is delightful to watch an animal moving at such a unique pace. I should mention, however, that they can turn the speed up a little bit. We have three tortoises that are kept at our field office, and when you have food the torts often will push the gas pedal all the way down and “run” to you. It is quite the sight.
Until next time,
Needles Field Office, BLM