Desert Tortoise

Scientific name: Gopherus agassizii
Habitat:sandy flats and rocky foothills; creosote scrub and mountains
Current range: Mojave and Sonoran deserts in southwestern USA
Conservation status: threatened (only the Mojave population)
Threats: habitat loss/fragmentation and human encroachment, possibly disease
Related research: C2S2’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Program


photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global

Mysterious species of the southwest

Long-lived and elusive, the desert tortoise is the largest reptile in the Southwestern USA.  This species is considered ‘keystone’ to the Mojave – meaning that it plays a significant role in maintaining the integrity of the desert ecosystem and, if lost, will put other species at risk for extinction.  Although having adapted to harsh desert environments for millions of years, the desert tortoise is currently challenged by urbanization that has caused significant habitat loss and a drastic population decline by as much as 90%.  Scientific research also has determined that this species is sensitive to other natural and anthropogenic factors, including wildfires, disease, predation and encroachment of invasive species.

Conservation in Action

The Mojave population of desert tortoise was listed as ‘threatened’ under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1990.  This declaration by the U.S. government laid a foundation for action by state and federal agencies to work with an array of cooperators to understand the biology and develop scientifically sound recovery projects.

One of the greatest challenges in saving the desert tortoise is the thousands of animals that have been displaced by land development in Nevada.  As a result, the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center was created to function as a holding and transfer facility for tortoises removed from the greater Las Vegas Valley and as a location for research.   A priority of this facility is to provide state-of-the-art care for resident tortoises, including preparing animals for reintroduction into restored habitat.

Managing these thousands of animals requires special expertise, and in 2008, the Conservation Centers for Species Survival was contacted for input which subsequently led to a site visit with general recommendations followed in 2009 by a direct management initiative led by consortium member San Diego Zoo Global.  Learn more about C2S2’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Program.

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