Tortoise Fight

Two desert tortoises duke it out.

Two desert tortoises duke it out.

The day started in the perfectly normal manner. Hopping out of bed at 3 a.m., I cruised on through the morning schedule. Pack? Check. Water? Check. Sunblock? Check. As I walk out the door, my cat yawns and glares at me, implying “You DO know the sun’s not up yet, right?”

Once out in the field, I greet the sun rising over the Spring Mountains with the usual smile. Week after week, I track the movement of transmitter-wearing desert tortoises for the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. In short, I hike a lot. However, don’t let me fool you; it’s anything but dull. That’s the beauty of working with living creatures—you never know when you’ll experience something extraordinary. And that’s just what happened that perfectly normal day in the field.

Raising my antenna, I punched the frequency for tortoise #21 into the receiver. After following the signal and tone, I finally approached #21 digging on the apron of a soil borrow. “And another one down,” I thought to myself as I kneeled down to take a GPS point. That’s when I noticed the second tortoise in the mouth of the burrow. I leaned in close, inspecting its carapace. This tortoise had been notched and tagged already, the usual procedure when we come across a resident in the field: #25. I was so caught up with identifying #25 that I hardly noticed #21’s movement until it was butting against the side of my boot. “Whoa, buddy!” Someone was clearly in a feisty mood.

I quickly finished taking my GPS point and moved away to complete the datasheet. Suddenly, I heard scuttling, scratching, and the movement of dirt coming from the direction of the tortoises. “What is going on?” I wondered, and I moved back within eyeshot of the burrow.

I froze. The tortoises were fighting! After inspecting me, #21 had proceeded to move back to the burrow and pick a fight with the larger #25. They were really going at it, their hard shells knocking together with a sharp “crack” upon contact. I initially thought I was witnessing a male versus male brawl but was surprised to discover that #21 was a female! Click on the video link below to watch…

Desert tortoise fight

Shortly thereafter, the two broke apart. I wasn’t sure if I was viewing the tortoise reenactment of “Hit the road, Jack,” but I used the pause to grab my camera in anticipation of round two. Sure enough, they collided again, pushing with their heads and the front of their shells, often lifting each other on their hind limbs due to the force. Finally, the male, #25, managed to flip the female, #21, over the edge of the burrow apron. I stopped recording and rushed to a new spot to see her. She was now on her back, but she wasn’t about to back down. She slowly righted herself on her feet, ready for round three. After several more minutes of tussling, #25 finally backed away, turned around, and moved away from the dirt burrow. Meanwhile, #21 stood triumphantly on her burrow apron watching him meander off. How’s that for a bit of spring cleaning?

I smiled, shook my head, and finished filling out the data sheet. I punched in the numbers for the frequency of the next tortoise on the list, picked up my pack, and held up the antenna.

Yep, just another perfectly normal day…

Tiffany Pereira is a research associated at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.