Counting Tortoises

A juvenile tortoise found a home in the remains of an adult's shell.

From March to October 2010, we are focusing on completing the tortoise inventory at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, and I am happy to say that we are off to a running start! My job is to make sure we finish the inventory before the tortoises go into brumation this year, so I am supervising four seasonal research assistants (RAs) to make sure we get this challenging job done! Three of our four seasonal staff relocated to Las Vegas on June 1, and our fourth seasonal RA is a Las Vegas resident; all are eager for the opportunity to work with the desert tortoises. Little did they know they would be feeding tortoises at 5 a.m. and digging burrows at high noon in 112 degree Fahrenheit heat!

How far have we gotten with inventorying the tortoises on our 222-acre facility? We have completed the inventory of about 115 acres, but we are saving the best for last: giant 10-acre pens! While searching for tortoises in their enclosures, the seasonal RAs have made many exciting discoveries. For example, seasonal RA Holly DeAngelis found a hatchling desert tortoise under a creosote bush, a common place to find tortoises, but when the tortoise is only the size of golf ball and well camouflaged in the environment, it’s a great find by an eagle-eyed staff member!

An 18-year-resident of the DTCC!

Another seasonal RA, Paul Griese, discovered a tortoise with an ID tag indicating that it had been living on site for 18 years, almost as long as the DTCC has been in existence! It’s great to know that tortoises can thrive here in our care. Just a few days ago, seasonal RA Jason Rose discovered something we never expected to see: a juvenile desert tortoise taking shelter inside the hollow shell of an adult tortoise that died many years ago (pictured at top). On the one hand, it was sad to see the carcass of the adult, but seeing the small tortoise trucking around without a care in the world reminded us that with every generation of desert tortoise we raise at the DTCC, we have new hope that some day we can recover this species.

Pamela, far left, and the research assistants

And speaking of recovering the species: while scoping a natural burrow to see if any tortoises were in it, seasonal RA Will Lee discovered three unhatched tortoise eggs deep within the burrow! Will immediately called me, and I went out to meet him at the burrow. I gently excavated the nest and placed the eggs into a container with soft sand from the burrow for transport to our incubator. Now we are excitedly awaiting the new arrivals to the DTCC family!

There is never a dull moment here at the DTCC. As inventory of the tortoises continues to move forward, I will update you on our progress and our exciting discoveries!

Pamela Cicoria is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Tortoise Staff on Stage.

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