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About Author: Pam Cicoria

Posts by Pam Cicoria

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Desert Tortoises Step Closer to the Wild

Can you find the desert tortoise in this burrow?

We recently completed our inventory of all the tortoises on site at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC). It took us two full active tortoise seasons, but we did it! (See Pam’s previous post, Counting Tortoises). Although this task has occupied nearly all of our time, we have somehow also been able to move healthy tortoises into our newly designated 20-acre translocation enclosure. Healthy, ELISA-negative tortoises (see post Tortoise Science: Cooler than You Think about ELISA testing) that have remained free of upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) symptoms for at least 30 days will be moved to the translocation enclosure (we call it a “pen”), the final step before being relocated into the wild next spring!

We had to make sure that the translocation pen could accommodate the number of tortoises we wanted to put in it, so our four seasonal research assistants had the task of adding burrows to provide the tortoises with protection from the heat and cold and installing a water delivery system to this pen. Each burrow takes an hour or more for one person to dig, but we have successfully added 50 burrows to this pen over the course of 2 months while still conducting inventory!

We now have over 100 healthy tortoises waiting to be relocated to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-approved translocation site here in southern Nevada! We plan to put radio transmitters and GPS data loggers on the healthy tortoises prior to the long-anticipated release in the spring of 2011. A team of experienced telemetry technicians will follow the signal from these transmitters, allowing us to track and study the movements and habit use of these animals.

Why is translocation into the wild so important? Wild populations of Mojave desert tortoises have reportedly declined by approximately 90 percent in the past 30 years; it is estimated that there are only about 150,000 wild Mojave desert tortoises remaining in critical habitat. The desert tortoise is a keystone species, meaning that it plays a critical role in its environment. How? Desert tortoise burrows serve to protect other desert species from predators and harsh weather conditions, and they disperse seeds from the native plants that they eat, repopulating the desert ecosystem with them.

Our mission is to play a significant role in the conservation of the Mojave Desert, including the recovery of the desert tortoise and its habitat. Through all of our work, including translocation, we are well on our way to fulfilling our mission!

Pamela Cicoria is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

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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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Tortoise Staff on Stage

A desert tortoise at a burrow.

A few weeks ago, the San Diego Zoo’s DTCC (Desert Tortoise Conservation Center) staff excitedly loaded up the Ford Explorer and headed to Ontario, California, for a weekend-long symposium hosted by the Desert Tortoise Council. Every year at this time, a wide range of interested people, agencies, and organizations gather to discuss desert tortoise research, to share information, to spend time with colleagues, and to brainstorm solutions to the problems facing this threatened species.

Participants presented fascinating research dealing with health issues affecting tortoise populations, environmental threats to the tortoise, the potentially harmful effects of ambitious renewable energy projects on desert tortoise habitat, and the genetic differences between geographically distant populations of desert tortoises. There was much for all of us to learn!

This wasn’t just any conference for DTCC staff, though; it was a special occasion for us—the first time that we made a public presentation together. Each of us spent five to seven minutes presenting different aspects of the DTCC, showing the improvements we have made during our first year on site, presenting on-site tortoise inventory data, explaining the role of San Diego Zoo veterinarians and other zoo-based staff at the DTCC, and detailing our future plans for the facility.

The audience seemed most interested in the part of our presentation that detailed pet tortoises and captive care, because most people in attendance only had experience with wild tortoises and had never before witnessed the results of poor pet tortoise care (see post Family Dog Loves Pet Tortoise Too Much?). We also shared our great news about taking over operations of the pet desert tortoise hotline (see post Desert Tortoise Hotline). The audience had several questions for us, and people were eager to meet with us after the session had ended.

Although it took some of us out of our comfort zone to get up in front of a room full of people (100+ people were there!), we were welcomed warmly, and we are really proud that we were there to represent both the DTCC and the San Diego Zoo. We are looking forward to the meeting being held on our home turf in Las Vegas next year!

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