Time for Tortoise Training

Ben prepares to take a blood sample from a desert tortoise.

Ben prepares to take a blood sample from a desert tortoise.

The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, Nevada, is gearing up for the spring translocation of a number of desert tortoises. We will be moving tortoises from the DTCC to a field location in the desert, where we will release them to help augment struggling wild populations.

Translocation is stressful on tortoises, because they need to adapt quickly to new surroundings, find shelter, and keep a lookout for both resources and predators. To give translocated tortoises the best chance of surviving in the wild, we need to make sure the animals are healthy and strong enough to be released. We also need to try to prevent them from spreading diseases to other tortoises in the wild.

As a new research associate at the DTCC, my first week included a lot of training. We were lucky to have several desert tortoise researchers and veterinarians visit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and San Diego Zoo Global to provide hands-on instruction on how to visually assess the health and condition of tortoises. We also learned how best to gather data and collect samples, including how to take oral and blood samples from the tortoises to test for diseases. We learned how to measure the size and weight of each tortoise, made notes about how their facial features and shells looked, and checked them for injuries or signs of illness.

DTCC staff take desert tortoise measurements.

DTCC staff take desert tortoise measurements.

Knowing their condition before we move them will help us track their progress over time in their new wild habitat. On some of the tortoises, we will be attaching radio transmitters to the upper part of their shell (called a carapace). After we have translocated the tortoises, we’ll be tracking their movements in the field and will monitor their health conditions in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

It is our hope that by continuing these studies, we will get a better understanding of how translocations affect the desert tortoises we move as well as their new tortoise neighbors.

Ben Jurand is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

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