Did you know? Gopherus agassizii or the Mojave Desert Tortoise (Cooper 1861) gets its name from the word Gopher referring to the family of Geomyidae, small rodents known for their incredible ability to dig burrows (often through your garden!). The species name, agassizii, is a tribute to the Americano-Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz. This burrowing tortoise is found in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah.
The Mojave Desert Tortoise has been thoroughly studied for many decades with many long-term monitoring studies still underway. Unfortunately this species is also well-known for the diseases they can carry. Indeed a few populations suffer from upper respiratory tract disease, Herpes virus or skin problems. These tortoises live in extreme conditions in the desert, living in the burrows they construct to hide from hot temperatures during summer and cold temperatures during winter. A lot of species enjoy these burrows at the same time such as jackrabbits (Lepus californicus), rattlesnakes (Croatalus scutulatus), burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia), and many species of insects. Because the Mojave Desert Tortoise constructs vital shelter for others, it is often referred to as a keystone species. This tortoise mainly eats grass, flowers and leaves, but they have also been observed eating scat of small mammals. Indeed, in this very harsh environment it’s one of their ways to find nutrients and minerals they need. They also frequently eat soil for its calcium intake.
Considered as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature since 1996, this tortoise is threatened by a lot of things. First, human activities are of course the main threat for this animal. Habitat loss is an eternal problem, for grazing, energy production and housing development, natural space in the desert has been greatly degraded. Dumping and pollution also are a big threat for the desert. What’s more, the off road vehicles destroy plant scrub and burrows of tortoises, and represent a direct threat for the animals themselves. Road mortality is also an important issue concerning the survival of Mojave Desert Tortoises. Another issue is also the fact that people keep these animals in captivity and sometime release them in the desert. Indeed if captive animals are released in the wild they represent a threat for the wild tortoises since they carry diseases or parasites from captivity.
Education and raising awareness are essential if there will be a future for these animals. People using the roads in the range of this tortoise need to pay attention, and the dumping needs to stop in the desert. The habitat of these tortoises is fragile and every little bit can make a difference. The Turtle Conservancy just came back from a field trip in the Mojave Desert. We saw few healthy tortoises. We unfortunately observed motocross riders driving directly in the plant scrub and a lot of litter just dumped in the middle of the tortoise habitat. Our goal here is to help raise awareness of the plight of turtles and tortoises, because we are responsible for what is happening in the world. Please respect wildlife and wild places, and don’t release your captive animals in the wild!