About Author: Larisa Gokool

Posts by Larisa Gokool


Do Tortoises Wear Shower Caps?

As a San Diego Zoo Global researcher based at our Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, one of the things that really inspires my belief that the desert tortoise has a chance of surviving the threat of extinction is the interest it garners from completely uninvolved individuals. In the far northeast region of the country (read: Massachusetts), a children’s literature author (fine, she’s my mother), who had never heard of the desert tortoise until I joined the DTCC team, became inspired to help save it. Her contribution is a poem highlighting the trials and tribulations of being a highly sought-after pet in the Las Vegas area.

The idea came about as I was explaining to her that we recommend that people who call the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline place a tortoise to be picked up in a box in a temperature-controlled room, such as the bathroom. I would like to share her poem in this forum for tortoise fans to read because it is both highly entertaining and accurate!

Do Tortoises Wear Shower Caps?

by R. G. Gokool

I found a tortoise in my bathroom and asked,

“Do tortoises wear shower caps?”

He replied, “Not at all,

For it could slip off, and I could fall.”

“Your shell is so pale,

Would you like some polish, or some glitter on it and your nails?”

“Most certainly not, I use my shell to protect me when it’s hot,

And to hide from my enemy,

Not to stand out and say, ‘come and get me.’”

“Would you like to come with me to the parking lot?”

“No, I’ve been there before and had to withdraw into my hump,

As people tried to use me for a speed bump.”

“Are you hungry? Would you like some dog food or monkey chow?”

“No, no way, no how!

I’m a desert animal, not a mammal,

I like cactus fruit, fevertail, and native grasses.

Not food that gives me lumps and makes me gaseous.”

“Can I use you for a stepstool?”

“No, you can break my shell, and that would be cruel.”

“Would you like to go for a swim?

We can go to the pool and jump right in.”

“No, I come from the desert, nice and hot.

Not from the briny deep

Where all the sea turtles sleep.”

“Would you like to meet my dog, Spot?”

“Certainly not!

“He may be cute, but not too bright,

He’ll chew my leg off in one bite!”

“Can I give you and your hatchlings to my friend?”

“If you do, you’ll find it’s illegal and you’ll pay a fine in the end.”

“Can I take you home and make you mine?”

“If you do, you’ll have to pay a $10,000 fine.”

“Can I pick you up and give you a hug?”

“No, ‘cause then I would pee,

And there are no plants for me

To get water to keep hydrated, so you see.”

“Can I put you in my fish tank indoors?”

“No, ‘cause I live outside. I didn’t come from a pet store.”

If you see a tortoise from your car,

Just admire him from afar.

Do not be sad if he doesn’t wave,

For he’s not that friendly a fellow,

He just wants to be left alone in his burrow.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Bacteria, Viruses, and Disease, Oh My!


Bacteria, Viruses, and Disease, Oh My!

One of the many perks of working for San Diego Zoo Global is the opportunity for professional development. I recently got back from one such occasion and thought a change of pace might be nice, especially for you virology types!

I spent the past month in Escondido, California, at our Beckman Center in the Wildlife Disease Labs (WDL) under the instruction of my co-manager, Josephine Braun, D.V.M., a pathologist, veterinarian, and protector of the universe. She periodically sends for me to assist in collecting molecular diagnostic data to check for the occurrence of diseases in certain desert tortoise populations, such as those at our Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas or those in the wild. This past visit, I was testing many different types of tissues for the presence of bacteria such as Mycoplasma agassizii, M. testudineum, and viruses such as tortoise herpesvirus-2. It’s always very interesting for me to go to the WDL, because I get to see the process of determining a tortoise’s health status on the molecular level from start to finish.

It all starts with the collection of a broad range of tissues including each major organ system, tissues with gross lesions, and nasal flushes during necropsy using sterile technique. These tissues are then snap-frozen in liquid nitrogen and placed into a -80 degrees Fahrenheit (-62 degrees Celsius) freezer where they eagerly wait for someone to extract their DNA and discover the secrets they hold about the health status of a particular tortoise. Next, it is decided what pathogens to test for based on pre-mortem clinical signs and/or gross and histologic findings during necropsy and based on previous or current health issues within the population.

To do this, DNA is extracted with the help of a kit that contains all the buffers and tubes necessary to free DNA from its bounds within the cell. Once the DNA is extracted and cleaned, the quality and quantity of DNA is evaluated, and the freshly made DNA can be used for testing. This testing is usually a Real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) assay or test. The assays are specific for the pathogens in question and will detect minute amounts of pathogen DNA within the extracted pool. With this test, we are able to screen for pathogens that are suspected of infecting and making sick the desert tortoises exhibiting signs of illness on site.

If it weren’t for the capabilities the San Diego Zoo provides, these tortoises would not get the top-notch, round-the-clock care they receive based on the quick turnaround of test results. These quick results can then be utilized to lessen the effects of what could be a large-scale outbreak occurring in a particular population, in this case the tortoises at the DTCC. It is very important that we stay on top of the health status of potentially releasable tortoises, because the last thing we want to do during a translocation is cause the exposure of a previously unknown disease to wild tortoises whose very population we are trying to augment.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoise CSI.


Desert Tortoise CSI

"Detective" Larisa prepares for a necropsy.

The scene:
The hot, arid Mojave desert. Yuccas and Joshua trees sparsely dispersed in the foreground. Yellow “caution” tape surrounding the affected area. Photographs being snapped with numbers and rulers.

DTCC research associate:
The victim (adult male tortoise) was found lying in dorsal recumbancy (on the carapace) in front of an empty manmade burrow, urates on the plastron and ground. A fellow male and female tortoise look on from the corner of the tortoise pen.

DTCC pathology tech:
Looks like a case of love……gone wrong … YYYEEEAAAAAAHHHHH!!

Okay, okay, that’s not how my day actually plays out when a dead tortoise is found on site, which luckily isn’t too often, but we do have a pseudo-CSI department here at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC).

The tools of the trade we use in conducting our CSI activities, all set up in the necropsy trailer. The Mojave Desert can be seen through the window

If and when a tortoise is found dead on site, or needs to be humanely euthanized due to a debilitating illness or severe injury, it is immediately brought to the pathology trailer for necropsy. A necropsy is an animal autopsy, and it is performed by me, the pathology technician, as proxy for our pathologist who is based at the San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories. The necropsy helps determine the cause of death by examining body lesions or changes in tissues.

I begin a necropsy by verifying the death and identification of the tortoise, taking external measurements (weight, size, etc.), and noting any abnormalities seen on the exterior portions of the tortoise. After the external examination, I perform the internal examination, inspecting the organs, muscles, and joints, taking representative samples from each section for molecular diagnostics and histology. For histology, very thin-cut sections of these tissue samples (~10 µm thick) are mounted and stained on glass slides for microscopic examination of cells, structures, and immune response cells not visible to the naked eye. For molecular diagnostics we isolate DNA out of the tissue samples for real-time PCR, used to detect microorganisms. The samples, along with my gross descriptions (not gross as in disgusting, but gross as in overall) and photographic documentation of the case are sent to the pathologist, who will then interpret all of this information to make a diagnosis of why a tortoise died or the main cause of disease if it was euthanized.

A desert tortoise undergoing necropsy to determine the cause of death.

Necropsy is a very useful tool for maintaining the health of a captive population, especially for an animal listed as an endangered species, such as the desert tortoise. By conducting necropsies, we have the opportunity to learn from the unfortunate death of an animal on site. We can see tissue proliferations, severe inflammation, and abscesses that are not externally visible in areas such as the lungs. We also inspect changes to the nasal cavities, an area frequently affected by Mycoplasma agassizii, one of the leading causes of upper respiratory tract disease in tortoises. We can see an excess in production of mineral deposits, such as uroliths (bladder stones) within the urinary bladder that are too large for the animal to pass so they cause a blockage. We can also see endoparasites present within the GI tract that we can sample for identification.

Identifying infectious diseases and disease-causing agents is the first step toward mitigating disease in the remaining population and establishing screening tests. Thus, by investigating the deaths at the DTCC we are able to make more informed decisions regarding how to provide the best care for these animals that are destined to augment the dwindling wild populations.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Meeting Galápagos Tortoises.


Meeting Galápagos Tortoises

Let me start by saying that when it comes to tortoises, I am now a big fan. I may not have started out that way, but all it takes is one look into those big, yellow dinosaur eyes and you’re hooked from day one…at least that’s how it was for me.

Being from the East Coast, I was more aware of gopher tortoises, a cousin of the desert tortoise that occurs in the southeastern United States, and Galápagos tortoises, known for their size and fateful run-in with Charles Darwin, and, of course, because they are awesome. I’ve always wanted to see a Galápagos tortoise in real life, but how was that going to happen, short of buying a plane ticket to the Galápagos Islands?!

So I forgot about the idea and focused elsewhere until I applied for a position in the blistering desert and learned about a fascinating animal that I may never have gotten the chance to know: the threatened desert tortoise. Working for San Diego Zoo Global’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas, provides a lot of opportunities for its employees to learn about the species they interact with on a daily basis and encourages employees to get to know their fellow San Diego Zoo Global employees.

Oliver munches on some kale.

I had such an opportunity after the DTCC’s conservation program manager came back from a meeting in San Diego. She told us she met the Galápagos tortoise keeper, who offered to give DTCC employees a behind-the-scenes tour whenever we were in the area; we could even meet the Galápagos tortoises up close and personal. Hearing this, my prime directive became “I need to get to San Diego.” And get to the San Diego Zoo I did!

I met Jenna, the tortoises’ friendly keeper, who immediately welcomed us into the enclosure; these gargantuan reptiles immediately swarmed us in hopes of being hand-fed bok choy. Jenna introduced us to several of the tortoises, and, like desert tortoises, each Galápagos tortoise had a different personality and will follow anyone who has food in their hand!

Baby enjoys a neck rub.

Oliver, my favorite, was blind, although he always knew where I was holding the bok choy for him, nipping at my hand if I was too slow to fill his gaping mouth, even if he wasn’t done chewing the previous handful! Baby, tied with Oliver for my favorite Galápagos tortoise, is an adorable 10-year-old, overweight tortoise. Jenna explained to us that, though they try to get her to exercise, she would rather be eating (a sentiment I am familiar with!). When looking at Baby, I could see that she truly enjoyed the heart of palm she was happily munching away at.

Meeting Jenna and her herd of Galápagos tortoises was an amazing experience that I was able to have because of the warm and welcoming community of San Diego Zoo Global employees, who strive to make those of us at off-site field locations feel like we’re genuinely part of the family.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, New Lab Coordinator for Tortoises.


Tortoise Science: Cooler than You Think!

A desert tortoise enjoys the Mojave Desert.

At the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, we take a blood sample from every tortoise that enters the facility, and we send it out for an ELISA test, which will determine if the tortoise has been exposed to Mycoplasma agassizzi, the bacteria that causes upper respiratory tract disease (URTD). Part of my job is to make sure those blood samples are prepared, cataloged, and properly packaged for shipment to the appropriate lab for testing.

Drawing blood from a tortoise is not the easiest skill to master; in fact, when I was first learning I was so afraid of harming the tortoise that it must have taken me 15 minutes of talking to the tortoise to put myself at ease! Eventually I did get the hang of drawing blood after a lot of close supervision from my colleagues here, and I am now the newest member of the staff permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to draw blood from desert tortoises.

Larisa's tools of the trade.

An ELISA, which stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, is a test done in a molecular laboratory. It is used to detect particular antibodies in the blood; in this case, antibodies against Mycoplasma agassizzi. A positive, negative, or suspect result is based on the concentration of these antibodies (titers) present in a tortoise’s blood. When a tortoise tests positive, it means the tortoise has been exposed to the bacteria at some point in its life, but it does not necessarily mean that a tortoise is sick (this is a common misconception!). As a precaution, though, we never house tortoises that tested negative with those that tested positive, even if they show no symptoms, because there is always a chance that they ARE infected and could transmit the disease.

This is why it is very important to never release your pet desert tortoise back into the wild yourself: even if it doesn’t look sick, it could be carrying a pathogen and could infect an entire wild population of already threatened desert tortoises and put them at risk of disease and even death. The only legal means of surrendering a pet desert tortoise in Nevada is by calling our Hotline.

If you have a tortoise that doesn’t seem to be feeling well, look for symptoms that are somewhat similar to those we experience when we have a chest cold. Tortoises may have discharge from their eyes or nose, labored breathing, missing scales around the nares (nostrils), puffy eyelids and/or sunken eyes; these may be combined with lethargy and depressed behavior, much like the way we act when we don’t feel well (minus the missing scales around the nares!). Left untreated and without access to proper food, water, sunlight, and/or shelter (burrow), a desert tortoise can slowly succumb to the symptoms of URTD. If your tortoise does show upper respiratory symptoms, it is very important to get treatment from a veterinarian that specializes in desert tortoises (not just an exotics vet or a reptile vet!). And you can call our Hotline for more information as well.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Feeding Frenzy.


Feeding Frenzy

A desert tortoise eyes the food bucket.

They see you before you even know they’re there, waiting, watching. Gingerly stepping from pen to pen, avoiding the prickly burrs and trying not to walk into a pointed yucca while carrying a gallon bucket of tortoise chow, you feel like you’re alone out here. Sure, you know a lack of visual confirmation means they’re in the burrows, but then you get comfortable, not expecting to see anyone or anything because of the temperature of the morning. “It must be too cold,” you think to yourself, back turned as you step into the next pen, eyes cast downward, watching your step. And just as you are embracing that alone time with the desert sunrise, you look up slowly, and fast approaching on those stubby, elephantine legs, five sets of eyes have you in their sights, and they want…the food bucket!

Every morning, one of the first tasks to be done at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas is to round up four or five people to feed the desert tortoises that live on site. There are 6 different pen areas, all of which get fed one or two times a week by the DTCC staff to supplement the native food sources planted in their enclosures. We feed the tortoises Mazuri diet, a moistened pelleted tortoise food that has the right balance of nutrition for desert tortoises maintained in captivity.

Feeding is one of my favorite tasks at the DTCC. With tortoise season in full swing, we are collecting thousands of samples that I am responsible for banking in the lab (see Larisa’s post, New Lab Coordinator for Tortoises), so I don’t always have time to get outside. For that reason I relish the times I am able to feed the tortoises and observe them eating, walking, and just being tortoises in a natural, safe environment. Walking from pen to pen looking for a tortoise to plop a handful of food in front of reminds me very much of an Easter egg hunt: you’re not sure when or where a desert tortoise will appear, but when you find it, it’s such an exhilarating moment! You’d think by now I’d be used to seeing these tortoises, but each time is as exciting as the first for me. Granted, they’re not “excited” as much about me as they are about the bucket of food I’m carrying, but it’s still an experience I would not otherwise have were I not a member of the DTCC staff.

After giving a tortoise some chow, I sometimes take a few seconds to stand back and watch as he/she digs in, glad to be able to help do something that will, I hope, make these animals strong and healthy enough to one day be released back into the wild.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read a previous tortoise post, Desert Tortoise: Not Apartment-friendly Pet.

Watch a video about the DTCC…


New Lab Coordinator for Tortoises

Larisa holds a juvenile desert tortoise.

It was 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-12.7 degrees Celsius) when I boarded the plane that would deliver me from Boston to Las Vegas to become the San Diego Zoo’s newest research associate at its Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC). I boarded the plane wearing a heavy down-filled jacket, a wool scarf, insulating gloves, and calf-length suede boots; let me tell you, I was down to a T-shirt by the time I got outside McCarran airport!

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.

From blizzard to bliss in one day!

Larisa is now at home at the DTCC.

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.