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Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

5

Planning a Perfect Desert (Tortoise) Getaway

A desert tortoise is in safe hands during translocation.

A desert tortoise is in safe hands during translocation.

My boots are sitting in the hallway covered in dust. Not from lack of use, I might add. But following such an inspiring field experience in the Mojave Desert, where I released tortoises to the wild, it just seemed too soon to wipe away the dusty memories of my desert adventure.

If you work at a desk most of the time, like I do, you’ll understand that getting out into the field can be a rare and fleeting opportunity. Fortunately for me, my job takes me on walkabout to visit our field programs about once every couple of months. Each trip has a dedicated mission, from delivering vital field equipment to planning field operations alongside remotely based staff, and each trip has the added bonus of bringing me joy in connecting with the animals, people, and places where we work.

On this last trip, my trifold mission was to deliver a brand-new four-wheel drive truck to our Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, assist in a long-planned translocation of desert tortoises to the Greater Trout Canyon area just west of Las Vegas, and take staffer Julie Marshall on a memorable professional training experience. Julie works diligently overseeing our Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, ensuring all our projects follow the highest animal welfare standards, and this trip would give her the golden opportunity to see our tortoise conservation efforts in action.

Julie Marshall radio tracks a desert tortoise.

Julie Marshall radio tracks a desert tortoise.

Our first day was spent with the staff at the Center, carefully preparing animals for their move to the wild. Each tortoise has undergone a meticulous health screening and testing over the past year to ensure its overall condition will not compromise its chances for survival. Carrying out the finishing touches, we attached radio transmitters to each of the 32 tortoises destined for freedom. The translocation effort serves two main purposes: population augmentation and research. The population of wild tortoises in the Greater Trout Canyon area has been in decline for several years. The translocated animals are expected to bolster the population and, at the very least, slow the decline in numbers. Research includes checking on the released tortoises at regular intervals to determine how they are adapting to their new environment.

Waking uncomfortably early at 4 a.m. the next day, we headed out to meet the staff, volunteers, and members of other agencies (NDOW, FWS, USGS), assisting in the translocation. After a briefing and some quick training in the use of handheld GPS units, we drove off in convoy with our precious cargo. As dawn was breaking, each tortoise received a subcutaneous injection of liquid to ensure proper hydration, and each person, carrying a tortoise in a tote, navigated to a target GPS location to make a “drop”. Fanning out across the desert landscape, our work was accomplished swiftly in the cool morning air, some tortoises remaining still until we left their sides, others trotting off into the near distance. We all left wondering, what next?

Our third and final day started just as uncomfortably early as day two and focused on finding out what next. While I caught up on center operations, Julie accompanied our field technicians to learn how to radio track tortoises. Hiking across the desert terrain following the beeping sound of an animal’s transmitter is tough work, but the payoff when you find an animal is exhilarating. After animals are translocated, they often make longer-range movements than normal in exploring their new environment, so it is key for us to follow them closely during their first few weeks of release so we don’t lose anybody.

I’m happy to report all tortoises were relocated, and I’m grateful that my job involves working with the dedicated members of the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center team who are making conservation happen and who are all infinitely better morning people than I!

Allyson Walsh is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

5

Tortoise in the Glass: Evaluating Health Problems

To you, a typical tortoise might look like this:

desert tortoise adult

But to me, a tortoise may also look like this:

desert tortoise tissue samples

I’m a veterinary pathologist, which means I spend a lot of quality time looking through a microscope at slides with tissues to try to evaluate health problems that show up as changes in those tissues. I can find dying cells, inflammation, various pathogens, scarring, thinning, thickening, bleeding, tumors, strange crystals, and unusual pigments. All of the changes help us understand the health problems affecting an animal.

At the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, I work exclusively on tortoises that have died at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Why bother? Well, it turns out that one of the best ways to figure out what health indicators most accurately indicate disease is to compare the information from the live tortoise to the changes we see in the tissues if the animal dies. The more we know about which tools work to predict severity and type of disease, the faster and more precise we are at identifying and helping animals at risk.

To get information from enough tortoises to allow good conclusions to be drawn, I need to look at a lot of slides. Since 2009, over 4,500 slides have been made of desert tortoise tissues, providing an invaluable resource for the understanding of disease in desert tortoises. Since November 2012, I’ve been describing the changes I see so that they can be correlated to what was found in the live animal. Thankfully, I haven’t been working all alone; Dr. Lily Cheng, another veterinary pathologist, volunteered to spend two whole months staring at a mountain of desert tortoise slides. Between the two of us, we’ve done more than 3,000 slides belonging to over 250 tortoises!

Are you curious about what sorts of things we see? Good! We are always on the lookout for bacteria or viruses that cause that most feared of tortoise infections: upper respiratory disease. This is more than just a head cold like people get and is a big factor in tortoise population decline. Some savvy souls may note that no light microscope can show an individual virus particle (you really need an electron microscope for that, since viruses are smaller than the wavelength of visible light). Conveniently, however, some viruses clump together to form rafts of virus particles. These are big enough to see with a microscope, just as you can see a patch of lawn even if you are too far away to pick out a single blade of grass. The virus most common and dangerous in tortoise respiratory disease (herpesvirus) forms these aggregations in the nuclei of cells, and they are called intranuclear inclusions.

Below are some cells from a tortoise that had severe upper respiratory disease. On the left side of the picture, you can see normal nuclei: round or oval purple shapes that look very speckled, like chocolate chip cookies. On the right side of the picture, the nuclei are bigger and have clumps of magenta in the center surrounded by a clear rim. They no longer resemble chocolate chip cookies at all. Those magenta blobs are viral inclusions from herpesvirus!

Herpes inclusions

The work continues at a good pace, and there are only about 1,300 slides left to look at. They weigh almost 7 kilograms (15 pounds) altogether. Wish me luck!

Kali Holder, D.V.M., is a postdoctoral associate in the Wildlife Disease Laboratories for San Diego Zoo Global.

4

White Christmas for Juvenile Desert Tortoises

A tortoise burrow can be seen the morning after a nightfall of light snow. desert.

A tortoise burrow can be seen the morning after a nightfall of light snow. desert.

Juvenile desert tortoises released in September 2012 at the Nevada National Security Site are making their way through their first winter in the wild. The tortoises were snug tight in their burrows over the holidays when temperatures dropped below freezing and a light snow fell.

As ectotherms (cold-blooded animals), desert tortoises must utilize their surroundings to regulate their body temperature since they can’t warm their bodies on their own. Only a few inches of soil are enough to buffer air temperatures to allow the tortoises to hibernate through the winter without freezing. In a few more months, when the air temperatures begin to rise here in the desert, all of our translocated tortoises should emerge to heat themselves in the sun.

Jeanette Perry is a research assistant at San Diego Zoo Global’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Read her previous post, Wandering Males, Jealous Boyfriends.

1

Tortoises Spotlight Teacher Workshop

Workshop participants find a “tortoise” using radio-tracking equipment.

As we close in on our winter season at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, located in Las Vegas, Nevada, it’s a great time to reflect on some of the highlights of our busy summer. One new program we offered to local teachers through the Clark County School District was a desert tortoise education workshop. This past June and July, a total of 32 teachers took part in the workshops. We’re happy to report that the classes were well received, and the response has been very positive!

Although rarely seen in the wild, the desert tortoise is the state reptile of Nevada and an important keystone species of the Mojave Desert ecosystem. Getting kids excited about science and math can be a huge hurdle for many teachers, and this was one of our main motivations for developing the desert tortoise workshop. One of the goals of the workshop was to provide teachers with curriculum that spotlights the cool adaptations of the desert tortoise while focusing on the important roles it plays in the Mojave Desert. With a focus on biology, ecology, and conservation, teacher participants were provided with fun and interactive desert tortoise curriculum, which also fulfills the Nevada classroom standards in life and earth sciences.

Throughout the workshop, teachers became students and were able to participate in hands-on activities and demonstrations to simulate current research projects being conducted by San Diego Zoo scientists. For example, teachers participated in a telemetry demonstration, learning hands-on how researchers use telemetry to study tortoise behavior following a release back into the wild. As a part of the activity, participants used radio tracking-equipment to “track” a model tortoise (made of Styrofoam), which had been affixed with a radio transmitter and hidden under vegetation. It was fun to watch a group of educators weave their way through the desert in unison, following the sound of a radio receiver, which released a “ping” as the Styrofoam tortoise grew closer.

Educators who participated in the workshop earned one credit toward professional development education through the Clark County School District, and were provided with desert tortoise resource materials and activities, which can be adapted to their individual grade levels. After a successful first run, we will be offering the workshop again to local teachers in February 2013. We’re excited to provide educators with the opportunity to study the desert tortoise and return to the classroom with a range of tools to promote continued education of this amazing animal and the Mojave Desert ecosystem.

Lori Scott is a research associate at San Diego Zoo Global’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoises Pose for Photos.

8

Wandering Males, Jealous Boyfriends

Jeanette removes a transmitter from one of the released desert tortoises.

We’re currently at the tail end of one of our desert tortoise translocation projects. It’s finally time to say goodbye to the desert tortoises we have been tracking for the past year and a half, and over the past month or so we’ve begun the task of removing their transmitters. However, this is easier said than done. This project happened to end during the mating season, a time when males move long distances in search of females. One of our males went missing for five weeks and was found almost three miles from his old burrow!

Before we remove the transmitters, we do a final health assessment. We noticed damage to the underside of the carapace (the top shell) on many males. They are known to fight other males utilizing their gular horns to attempt to flip their opponent onto their back. Some male tortoises are bolder than others, and we came across a very bold resident male searching for a female one sunny morning. As my coworker, Jason Rose, and I approached a burrow that female tortoise #619 was occupying, we heard movement inside the burrow. Assuming it was the female we were tracking, we checked the burrow and saw a male tortoise charging at us! He came straight out of the burrow and blocked its entrance, trying to keep us away from his mate. His chin glands were enlarged, and he looked mad!

Here is tortoise #619′s very ardent and determined suitor.

Jason put some gloves on and moved him 50 meters (165 feet) from the burrow so we could get to the female. While waiting for the female to come out of the burrow, the male snuck up behind us and attempted to re-enter the burrow. This time we moved him 100 meters (328 feet) from the burrow to give us some time with the female. Moments later, the male returned and charged Jason. Knowing the female was not going to exit the burrow with the aggressive male in the area, we packed up and allowed the male to re-enter the burrow. He positioned himself facing toward us, in front of the female. Claiming defeat to the jealous boyfriend, Jason and I left the site.

Jeanette Perry is a research assistant at San Diego Zoo Global’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.

2

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.

7

Seasons of a Research Assistant

Paul releases a desert tortoise into the Mojave Desert.

I am a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am employed on a temporary basis during the time when the tortoises are active, and I have now finished my second season. There are different groups of research assistant positions. My group, known as the “Seasonals,” provides the basic day-to-day needs for the nearly 3,000 tortoises living here at the DTCC. The four of us provide food and water for the tortoises, make sure the tortoises’ pens are secure and that the burrows we dig for them are functional, and make observations of the tortoises’ health. We spend a lot of time outside in the desert heat, but we are also involved in data entry, record keeping, and work in the labs and medical center. We also do a lot of cleaning. If you have ever been involved in any area of animal care, you know that cleaning is a basic function that has to be done!

During my first season, our daily schedule was fairly standard. As the sun was rising, the Seasonals would begin feeding the tortoises according to the daily schedule (different pens on different days). Afterward, we immediately started doing inventory (see post Counting Tortoises). We assessed and put ID tags on tortoises from over 200 acres of pens. We walked many in-line transects searching for tortoises, and we even used camera scopes in the deepest, most convoluted burrows to search for tortoises.

After the first season was complete, I continued to volunteer at the DTCC and soon was offered another contract for 2011. I accepted! While my first season was from June through October 2010, my second season would be a seven-month marathon—starting April and ending into November. I began to wonder: “The inventory project is done, what could possibly take place this year that would keep us busy?” Well, I didn’t have to worry about that!

This year all of the Seasonals got to participate in translocations. During April, May, September, and October, we helped move over 500 of our desert tortoises into the wild. Also, we were allowed to spend an entire day with the telemetry folks to search for our translocated tortoises in the wild desert. Each of us learned how to use the tracking equipment, tune in the right VHF frequency, hold the antennae high above our heads, and search for tortoises.

Monster enjoys a meal just outside his new burrow.

I’ll tell you about one of my proudest moments. Fellow Seasonal Jeremy Conte and I were entrusted with the job of building a better, bigger burrow for our esteemed resident, Monster (see post Monster Desert Tortoise). Monster’s burrow was falling into disrepair. Jeremy and I spent about two hours per day for a full workweek building a new home. After a weekend to allow the mud-dirt wall to settle, it was ready. Monster moved in on a Monday, and he spent the entire summer using the “Monster Burrow.” I am happy to say the burrow still stands strong. Monster had no problems during the summer and seemed more active and social to human visitors.

Side-blotched lizard

A real delightful treat is seeing other animal life here at the DTCC: snakes (including the Mojave green!), bats, red-tailed hawks, ravens, horned toads, side-blotched lizards, geckos, the coyotes that roam outside our perimeter fence, roadrunners, ground squirrels, quail, and rabbits. One time I saw a barn owl flying overhead in broad daylight! We even have some hummingbirds visit. Granted, some in these are tortoise predators, but nevertheless I am still fascinated to see these animals.

And so, my second season has ended. Once again I handed in my Zoo photo ID. Seasonals, volunteers, and interns have come and gone. Many of my talented fellow Seasonals came here from out of state, some just barely out of college, or graduate school, looking for an entry into a biology or zoology career. Being an employee of the San Diego Zoo is a crowning achievement in my life, and working at the DTCC is a tremendous opportunity for getting involved in animal care and conservation. It is hard, sometimes grueling work, but there are wonderful rewards!

Paul Griese is a seasonal research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

4

Saving Tortoises, One Urolith at a Time

An x ray shows an adult desert tortoise with a large urolith on the left.

The tortoises have begun their fall slow-down and are preparing for their winter brumation (reptilian hibernation) here at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas. This means that the priorities in the medical center will shift a bit. We will have a few tortoises staying awake for the winter because they are either too sick or injured to brumate. However, we will also have a number of residents staying in the medical center waiting to have surgery at the state-of-the-art Harter Veterinary Medical Center, located at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. All of these tortoises have dangerous uroliths that have developed in their bladder (uroliths are analogous to kidney and bladder stones in people).

A large stone removed from an adult tortoise carcass

Uroliths develop for various reasons, the most common being improper nutrition or prolonged dehydration. One of the adaptations that tortoises have that allows them to thrive in the arid desert environment is the ability to store large amounts of water in their bladder and to reabsorb it as the body needs it. As they reabsorb the water in their bladder, the solid particles in the bladder become more concentrated and can stick together. As time goes on more solids are deposited in the bladder and combine with those already present, forming a stone. Therefore, stones are more likely to form if a tortoise goes long periods of time without consuming fresh water to flush and replace the stored water.

Small stones that form can pass out of the bladder when the animal eliminates. However, once the stone becomes a certain size, it can be too big to pass and remains in the bladder where it can continue to get larger. If the stone is there long enough, it can adhere to the walls of the bladder, making it very difficult to surgically remove it without damaging the bladder. Eventually the stone can get large enough to take up most of the bladder space, thereby taking up very important water storage space. This compounds the problem by increasing dehydration in the tortoise. Eventually the stone can block the urethra, preventing the tortoise from eliminating at all and causing a build up of toxins in the tortoise. The long-term presence of uroliths can result in a prolonged, painful death.

A desert tortoise recovers from surgery to remove a stone.

We palpate every tortoise during its health assessment to see if we can feel a coelomic mass. Sand or gravel in the bowels or eggs can feel similar to uroliths during palpation, so we x-ray every tortoise in which we feel a mass to determine what the mass is. Once we have x-ray confirmation that it’s a urolith, we send the tortoise to the hospital, where veterinarian Nadine Lamberski has developed a less invasive technique to remove the stone. Traditionally, the most common stone removal technique used by veterinarians was to remove part of the plastron (the bottom part of the shell) to get to the stone. This procedure is very invasive and can take a very long time to heal since the bone of the plastron has to be removed. The veterinarians at the Safari Park use a technique in which they make an incision in the skin of the prefemoral area (just in front of the hindlimb) so they can access the stone and break it down and remove it without having to remove part of the shell. This surgery can take up to 6 hours to perform, but the recovery time for the tortoise is much quicker for this procedure. I am very excited to say that the veterinarians have performed a number of these surgeries successfully, and our tortoises have been able to return to us with a much better future in store for them.

We have a number of tortoises ready for surgery this winter. Once they recover, they will be able to be released to the wild Mojave Desert in the healthiest condition possible next year to live out their long lives in a natural environment.

Rachel Foster is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoise Hibernation: Not for All.

2

Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline: Educational Outreach

Local students photograph a desert tortoise as part of a campaign to educate the public.

As we welcome the warmer weather, it means the start of our busy season at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline is running full speed ahead! With so much activity on the hotline, we are excited to be moving forward with a new pet desert tortoise outreach project. This has been the basis for a partnership with a local high school and some exceptional students helping to improve the lives of captive desert tortoises in southern Nevada!

This April, we opened our doors to eight digital photography and design students from West Career and Technical Academy, located in Las Vegas. The students had the opportunity to photograph several desert tortoises and many of the beautiful desert plants, like globemallow and beavertail cactus, that were in full bloom. All of the students have been working hard to combine their awesome photographic images with several of our key public messages to design some really cool Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline flyers, brochures, and postcards!

Students capture beavertail cactus in bloom.

We hope these will help prevent folks from illegally releasing a pet tortoise into the desert. I’ve had many conversations with custodians calling to surrender their pets, and prior to contacting the hotline they had been considering releasing their tortoise into the desert. With so many desert tortoises living in homes in Clark County (approximately 200,000), there is always the potential for a pet to be illegally released if a custodian can no longer care for the animal. A big part of our job involves reminding callers that any tortoise illegally released into the desert will have a poor chance for survival, and even if it appears healthy, it may be carrying diseases that could wipe out a wild population of tortoises. This could be devastating to our recovery efforts!

Another way pet tortoise custodians can help with our mission to recover wild populations is to prevent backyard breeding by separating males and females. This might seem counter-intuitive, but juveniles hatched in backyards often don’t survive and can be injured or killed by vehicles, neighborhood cats, or birds. Many hatchlings that do survive are given away illegally to friends or family members that don’t provide the appropriate care. These hatchlings often die slowly in terrariums and aquariums where they are not provided access to heat and light from the sun, which is crucial for proper shell development and survival into adulthood. Unfortunately, these cases occur far too often, and it is always a sad day when a tortoise does not survive due to improper care or injury. As our outreach efforts increase, we hope to see less and less of these tragic cases and more cooperation from the public in helping to conserve the desert tortoise and the Mojave Desert ecosystem!

As the Hotline rings in the background, I realize how easy it is to get caught up in the hectic day-to-day operations of running a busy hotline. Through this amazing project, I am reminded that conservation begins with each person willing to make a difference in his or her own community. The DTCC thanks the West Career and Technical Academy students for doing such a fantastic job with this project and for making a difference toward conservation. I hope others will be inspired to do the same in their own communities!

Lori Scott is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Homecoming for Big Guy.

11

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.