Being born and raised in coastal Massachusetts where the ocean is a short drive away, every yard has a green lawn, and winter means temperatures below freezing, Las Vegas gave me quite the culture shock. In Massachusetts, we consider 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1.1 degrees Celsius) to be a nice day in the winter! I found it fascinating to be in the desert in February with no snow on the ground, and I found the colors of the desert against the cloud-free sky to be really refreshing.
At the DTCC, my job is organizing the lab so that when tortoises come in via the hotline (see post Desert Tortoise Hotline) or we bring them in from the site to inventory, we have all the supplies necessary to process tortoises as quickly and smoothly as possible so as not to cause the tortoises any undue stress. We check the tortoises for injuries and symptoms of illness, such as upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma agassizii.
Processing tortoises consists of assigning an ID number to each tortoise; taking blood, oral, and nasal samples; and checking the tortoise’s shell and inner cavities for any abnormalities that may need special attention. After the health assessments are complete, the tortoises are given water and food and are placed in overnight holding before being moved to a quarantine pen with a man-made burrow.
Along with being responsible for the lab, I am also responsible for our newly arrived necropsy trailer. The necropsy trailer is a great asset for the DTCC because now, when a tortoise dies, we have an organized, isolated area where we can examine the body and learn what caused the animal’s death. We can then use that knowledge to better care for the live tortoises in the future.
Although I am far from home in a region of the country that is completely new to me, I am glad to have made this journey, because I am now part of the important task of helping to save a threatened species. When you go to college and imagine doing something important with your degree and with your life, being in Las Vegas working at the DTCC with these incredible animals has proven to be just that for me.
Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.