Tortoises and Their Amazing Feats

A translocated desert tortoise carries the radio transmitter and GPS unit we use to monitor its movements.

My life as a field biologist finally seems to have slowed down as of late. With the cold weather settling in here in the Mojave Desert and the desert tortoises all hiding deep in their burrows, I finally have a chance to reflect back on my first year here working as a researcher for the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve spent the past 12 years of my life studying amphibians and reptiles both around the country and throughout the world. But I must admit, chasing turtles and lizards in tropical rain forests or frogs on tiny islands in the South Pacific did not quite prepare me for working with these iconic desert creatures.

At first I thought, “Desert tortoises: how hard can it be?” After years of searching for silent frogs the size of an Oreo cookie in a dark forest at night, finding a tortoise the size of a dinner plate in a wide-open desert should be a piece of cake, right? And really, how fast can a tortoise possibly move? We’ve all grown up with the story of the tortoise and the hare…and yet even as a trained herpetologist, I was about to be amazed.

Jennifer radio-tracks translocated desert tortoises in southern Nevada.

Desert tortoises have adapted remarkably well to their arid environment. Despite, and perhaps because of, their size, they blend in with all the other rocks and rubble on the desert floor. Even with a radio transmitter glued to their shells, I’ve walked by more than a few, only to turn around to see their little faces peering at me from under their shell, hoping that I would keep on walking and mistake them for a another rock in the sunlight.

And as far as running? Well, tortoises may not be as fast as a hare, but they can definitely move. Currently, as human development takes over more and more of our pristine desert habitat, animals like the desert tortoise are often translocated or moved out of harm’s way. Unfortunately though, when you move a tortoise and drop it Bear Grylls-style into unknown territory (well, maybe not quite Man Vs. Wild style, as we do place our animals carefully in new sites and don’t make them jump out of airplanes and boats), the tortoise runs. Maybe not as fast as a cheetah or a Boston marathoner, but in true tortoise fashion they get their little legs going and race off.

This has been one of the focuses of my research: to figure out what affects an animal’s drive to move and how they behave following a translocation. After all, when we move animals out of harm’s way and to a safe place, we don’t want them to run home or leave the safety of our release site after translocation. Besides that, running takes an awful lot of energy, and if you are a creature adapted to the unforgiving desert environment, you want to conserve as much energy and food resources as possible.

Hillary, one of our translocated tortoises, comes down from the mountain (behind her) that took 10 days for her to climb.

Over this past year, I have spent countless hours trekking through the desert chasing after our tortoises to see where they went. One of them, Hillary (named after Sir Edmund of Mt. Everest fame), ran off right after the translocation and, living up to her name, took 10 days to climb all the way to the top of a mountain, stopping only at the base of a sheer cliff. After 10 days of climbing the mountain after her, to my great relief Hillary came back down and returned to the desert floor, settling in a wash only a few hundred yards/meters away from where we released her. Kenya, another of our amazing desert tortoises, spent the first few weeks after the translocation making daily movements of nearly a half mile (kilometer) or more. This is no small feat for a tortoise! With their tiny little legs, this would be like us walking over 10 miles (15 kilometers) a day!

Besides these amazing feats, surviving in the desert in a completely unknown area following a translocation is an accomplishment in itself. Most of our tortoises have stood up to the challenge and have made it through their first eight months at the new translocation site. While my team and I returned to our trucks at the end of each day, often sunburned and parched after hours of radio tracking, our desert tortoises have soldiered on. With hardly any rain and temperatures that soar to over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.33 degrees Celsius), these tough little critters survive and thrive in an environment that would put most of the staunchest humans to shame. It’s not an easy task, but I hope the knowledge we gain from our research will help to make future translocations at least a little bit easier on these resilient critters. It’s a tough life out there in the desert, and they deserve all the help they can get.

Jennifer Germano is a postdoctoral researcher at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.


Leave No Child Inside

A young Corrin examines a caterpillar.

October is Kids Free Days at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We’d also like to encourage children to get outside and explore nature. During October, several staff members at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research will be sharing their interactions and connections with nature at a young age and how these connections put them on their paths to becoming conservation biologists. We all believe in the message “leave no child inside” and are living proof that connecting with nature at a young age can lead to beautiful things!

I remember it like it was yesterday: my brother’s sleeping bag too close to mine, a little water in the bottom of the tent, bologna floating in the cooler, and a few mosquitoes to bid us good morning. This may sound unappealing, but it was precisely this—camping with my family when I was a young girl—that placed me on my path to become a conservationist. Looking back, people say that my parents must have been crazy. Who takes a two- and four-year-old out into the woods to sleep in a tent, cook over an open fire, and brave the wildlife and insects? I guess we do!

Living in a family where camping was a way of life, I learned to appreciate and respect nature very early. By age six, I could flip a rock and catch a snake with the best of them, rehabilitate an injured bird or squirrel with ease, and spot deer in the field with what I call my “eagle eyes.” While in most cases my “wild side” never caused any problems, I do remember one or two occasions where some of the other kids would make fun of me for swimming in the local pond instead of the swimming pool, which was located just a few yards away. “What?” I’d ask them. “I’m watching the frogs.”

When I moved to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi from Green Bay, Wisconsin, at age 10, I was a bit frightened. I didn’t know what to expect from the people or the environment. While the cultural change was a bit of an adjustment, I immediately found solace in the local biodiversity. Living on the bayou, I was blessed with having dolphins, blue claw crabs, and red fish in the “front yard” and alligators, herons, and water moccasins in the “back.” How beautiful and diverse it was.

If I had to choose one thing that connected me most to nature during this time of adolescence (and all that comes with it), I would say that it was watching the locals read nature. Old Greg from the family-owned bait shop down the bayou could watch the birds and predict a weather storm better than any weather man, could observe the water and tell where the fish were better than any fancy fish-finder, and could navigate the inlets of the bayou and channels of the Gulf better than any GPS unit. I realized then that nature holds the answers to many of life’s questions, and it was during this time that my fascination with nature evolved into appreciation. And it is with this combination of fascination, appreciation, and respect that I became an idealistic teenager with an earnest desire to save the world.

Corrin with children in Khau Ca, Vietnam

Now, as conservation education research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, I have been able to turn my earnest desires into action. Daily, I work with students, teachers, and professionals in our Conservation Education Lab promoting conservation biology, environmental literacy, and love for nature. Through our international community-based conservation projects in Vietnam, Cameroon, and Baja California, Mexico, I am able, once again, to sit in awe while soaking up knowledge and wisdom from local people and the surrounding environment. Who knew that camping with family and living on the bayou could have such an impact? All I know for sure is that I am very thankful and that I love my job. Early connections with nature have the ability to change a person’s world. So go out there, explore, get dirty, and make the connection!

Corrin LaCombe is the Brown Endowed conservation education research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Monkey Habitat in Vietnam.