Long-nosed leopard lizard
The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center
(DTCC) is located in southwest Las Vegas on a lovely patch of bajada (a broad sloping area of the desert surrounded by mountains). Here in the heart of the Mojave Desert, we are home to many desert tortoises, which are considered a flagship species in this ecosystem. That means the tortoise is an important representative of the Mojave Desert, and conservation and education efforts that relate to this species will benefit the entire ecosystem. The desert tortoise is the only chelonian (turtle/tortoise) in our area of the Southwest, but the Mojave is also home to a great many plant and animal species, including approximately 40 lizard and snake species, many of which use desert tortoise burrows as protection from predators and harsh environmental conditions. As a result of this relationship, many of these animals are found naturally right here at the DTCC.
Desert horned lizard
Some reptile species that we see regularly include the desert horned lizard Phrynosoma platyrhinos
. These lizards are incredibly cute! Luckily, they are also very well adapted to desert life. When frightened, they stay very still and often resemble rocks, so be careful to watch out for one when driving down desert roads, and remember to slow down because they are incredibly hard to see. The desert horned lizard, like all horned lizards, eats ants. Like some other reptiles, they can be very difficult to care for properly in captivity, but they continue to be popular as pets because they are so cute. But these animals belong in the desert, and that’s the only place they can truly thrive, so remember: wildlife should never be removed from the wild. Every individual that is taken into captivity as a cute little pet is one less individual that is available to support native populations. Once an individual is removed from the desert, it is considered biologically dead, since it is no longer breeding and filling its natural role in the wild.
Another amazing lizard we find on site is the long-nosed leopard lizard Gambelia wislizenii, pictured above. These beautiful lizards are fairly fast and quite good hunters. They survive by eating insects, spiders, other lizards, snakes, rodents, and occasionally plant matter. They often use a sit-and-wait style of hunting, but are capable of becoming bipedal (standing on two legs) when they run fast. The amazing colors seen on the female pictured here are typical during the spring breeding season; however, at other times of the year leopard lizards lose the orange coloration.
Mojave green rattlesnake
In terms of venomous snakes, we are incredibly fortunate here in the Mojave because we have just a few species. Our most dangerous venomous snakes are rattlesnakes, which look very different from Colubrids (mildly or non-venomous species that kill their prey by constriction). The Mojave green rattlesnake Crotalus scutulatus
and sidewinder Crotalus cerastes
are two species of rattlesnake we have seen regularly at the DTCC. Like all rattlesnakes, they do not lay eggs but give birth to live young! The sidewinder is very small and often nocturnal, while the Mojave green is considerably larger and can be found during the day or night if environmental conditions allow. The rattlesnakes offer no threat to the tortoises and at times can be found taking shelter in their burrows!
In addition to these snakes, the Mojave Desert supports three species of rear-fanged venomous snakes: the lyre snake Trimorphodon biscutatus, the night snake Hypsiglena torquata, and the southwestern black-headed snake Tantilla hobartsmithi. All snakes should be treated with respect, as should all wildlife, so it is best not to approach them. Humans have experienced adverse reactions to their bites, but no deaths have been reported.
These animals, and many others, are found right here at the DTCC and in the surrounding desert. The Mojave is truly an amazing place, with a subtle and quiet beauty that is often overlooked. Apart from being a spectacular desert of incredibly extreme conditions, it is also rich with highly specialized plants and animals. Saving the desert tortoise is not just about protecting the tortoise; it also preserves the habitat in which the tortoise lives, thereby protecting many other plants and animals from the threat of extinction. If we lose our desert tortoises, we will lose the Mojave Desert ecosystem as well, so thanks to all of you who support our efforts!
Kirsten Dutcher is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read a previous post about the DTCC, Desert Tortoise: Hatchling Surprise.