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About Author: Pamela Flores

Posts by Pamela Flores

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Look under Your Vehicle!

A desert lizard seeks shade under the tire of a truck.

A desert horned lizard seeks safety under the tire of a truck.

When working with animals, it’s important to always be aware of your surroundings, especially in the desert where I live and work. You can never be too sure that a tortoise or other wild creature is somewhere it shouldn’t be! “Check your tires!” is a common phrase around job sites and wilderness areas where you’d expect to find a desert tortoise. I’ve been working at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center for 3 1/2 years, so checking under my vehicle for tortoises before driving away is as natural as putting on my seat belt!

A group of us had just finished a desert tortoise translocation and were driving down the road, heading back toward civilization, when my eagle eyes spotted something scurry in front of the truck. I immediately stopped to investigate and spotted a desert horned lizard sitting in the middle of road; considering these lizards blend with the desert landscape, this was an impressive find!

Pamela's eagle eyes saved the lizard from being squished.

Pamela’s eagle eyes saved the lizard from being squished.

The lizard immediately headed for one of the truck’s tires for cover. I gently moved the lizard to the shade of a nearby creosote bush and continued back to the Center.

This is a great example of why it’s important to always be alert and aware of your surroundings!

Pamela Flores is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Read her previous post, Ode to the Creosote Bush.

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Ode to the Creosote Bush

A desert tortoise pauses under the shade of a creosote bush.

A desert tortoise pauses under the shade of a creosote bush.

The southwest desert is thought of as a barren landscape by many, yet you may be surprised to learn that the Mojave Desert is diverse with plants and animals, all conditioned to survive the extremes of this environment. The desert tortoise is a keystone species of this desert and well adapted to an arid climate. Desert tortoise burrows offer protection for 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!

Although it’s unlikely you’ll have a random encounter with a desert tortoise in the wild, it is common to see Larrea tridentata, commonly known as the creosote bush. This is a dominant shrub of the desert southwest and where desert tortoises tend to build their burrows due to the soil stability resulting from the creosote’s root system.

A creosote bush provides shelter for ground dwellers.

A creosote bush provides shelter for ground dwellers.

The creosote bush is also the most drought-tolerant of the desert southwest, with a waxy coating on its leaves that prevents water loss. During times of extreme drought, old branches and roots of creosote bush die back, returning only when it rains. Although, this shrub isn’t a primary food source, is does provide shelter to many animals.

As a desert dweller, rain is rarely in the forecast for me, but when it is, my senses are stimulated by the refreshing odor in the air, and I have often wondered, what causes the rain to smell? Well, the unique camphor-like odor in the air is from the creosote bush! When it rains, this waxy layer on the leaves volatilizes, producing the smell of rain.

I’ve called the desert southwest my home for a majority of my life, yet I continue to learn and appreciate the wonder of the desert around me every day!

Pamela Flores is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Read her previous post, Students Help Desert Tortoises.

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Students Help Desert Tortoises

Part of the West Tech Team

We recently collaborated with educators at West Career and Technical Academy here in Las Vegas with the goal of providing the students with an opportunity to coordinate their own projects! A few weeks and dozens of emails later, six technical high school students, along with their instructor, anxiously pulled up to the front gate of our Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), excited for the first day away from their classrooms.

The team measures a desert tortoise burrow.

The DTCC is an enclosed 222-acre (90 hectares) site located in southwest Las Vegas, Nevada, with varying sizes of enclosures. I suggested the idea for the engineering and GIS mapping students to map artificial and natural tortoise burrows in a 10-acre (4 hectares) enclosure. With the use of GPS to mark data points and flags to section off the pen into grids, the students methodically walked through the pen marking artificial and natural burrow locations and orientations. I also suggested the students check burrows for tortoises, looking for a possible correlation between burrow orientation and occupancy. This information may be useful to us when adding artificial burrows to enclosures.

The map the students produced, showing burrow locations at the DTCC.

A second group of students had a different interest—plants! Their project was to create a photo book. The plan was simple: walk the desert taking photos and identify the common and scientific names of as many plants as possible! Walking through the enclosures, they also noticed a common location for soil tortoise burrows, under the bush most commonly seen in our desert, Larrea tridenta, commonly known as creosote.

“The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center project was an amazing work experience. It gave us an opportunity to see how things worked in the real world. I got to work with some of the tortoises and see how they ate and lived in their natural habitat. We had to think about ways to make the tortoises’ life better and easier for the people to take care of.”
-Michael Vogel

Everyone here at the DTCC looks forward to future collaboration with the community!

Pamela Flores is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoise: Rainy Day Translocation.

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Desert Tortoise: Rainy Day Translocation

Pamela carefully places a desert tortoise into the Mojave Desert.

It’s 5 a.m. and a busy morning for the staff at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, Nevada. We are anxious for the big day ahead, because it’s time for our fall translocation of desert tortoises back to the Mojave Desert, where they will live freely in their native habitat.

This day begins unlike most days in the Las Vegas Valley; the air is cool, and dark, ominous clouds linger over the city. As our mini-caravan of 3 vehicles, 10 people, and 72 tortoises head south on the I-15 toward the U.S. Fish & Wildlife-approved release site, we enjoy a torrential downpour of rain! The clouds are so dark, and the wind and rain are so strong, that it’s difficult to see the vehicles ahead of us. It has been a long, hot, dry summer, and we are thrilled to see the rain, but we think that perhaps this may not be the best day for hiking and releasing tortoises. But only moments later the storm passes, the skies are clear, and it’s another beautiful morning in the Mojave Desert.

The DTCC team provides fluids to a tortoise about to be released.

When we arrive at the release site, DTCC staff members administer fluids to the tortoises, ensuring they are well hydrated for their new journey. We take our time, because we want to give every tortoise the best chance of survival, and providing them with these extra fluids may carry them through a period of unexpected drought in the months to come.

Once the final tortoise is released, we take a deep breath, admire the beautiful landscape, and head back to civilization. But on the way, we discovered a wild tortoise crossing a paved road. Normally, we would watch the tortoise from a distance, ensuring its safe arrival to the other side of the road, but not this time. In the distance we see a fast-moving vehicle heading straight toward us, so we immediately jump out of our truck, and Paul, one of our seasonal research assistants, quickly but carefully moves the tortoise off the road to safety several hundred yards into the desert. What a great way to end the day; we saved a wild tortoise from possible injury or death.

The desert tortoise moments before its rescue from an oncoming vehicle.

Every translocation we conduct takes place at a release site here in southern Nevada that is approved by our partners at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management. The San Diego Zoo is the only organization approved by USFWS to return desert tortoises to the desert; that’s because we put tortoises through a full battery of medical and behavioral tests for at least a year to ensure they are completely healthy before they leave the facility.

Pamela Flores is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Spring Desert Tortoise Translocation.

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Spring Desert Tortoise Translocation

This tortoise set her sights on eating a cactus bloom immediately after being released.

The long-anticipated 2011 desert tortoise translocation was a success! We successfully translocated nearly 200 healthy desert tortoises to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-approved translocation site here in southern Nevada. The San Diego Zoo is the only organization approved by FWS to return desert tortoises to the desert; that’s because we put tortoises through a full battery of medical and behavioral tests for at least a year to ensure that they are completely healthy before they leave the facility. We fitted a total of 34 desert tortoises with radio transmitters before release, and now experienced telemetry technicians have been following the signal from these transmitters for two months now, tracking and studying the tortoises’ daily movements and habitat use. They have reported back to us that the tortoises are thriving in their new habitat!

The team evaluates the health of a wild desert tortoise.

While at the translocation site, seasonal research assistant Jeremy spotted a resident, a wild desert tortoise naturally living in the area. We cautiously approached her, something only permitted authorized biologists are legally allowed to do. We conducted a health evaluation, and after seeing that she was in great condition, we carefully placed a radio transmitter on her shell. The telemetry team will track her movements, observing any future interactions and behaviors with the newly translocated tortoises. It will also be important for us to compare her movements with those of the translocated tortoises so we will know when the translocated tortoises start acting like normal wild animals.

I can speak for the entire staff at the Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center when I say that releasing these once-captive pet desert tortoises into the wild is the most rewarding part of our jobs! Translocation is incredibly important to wild populations of desert tortoises, as these populations 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.

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

Pamela Flores is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoises Step Closer to the Wild.