San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center


Volunteers Help Desert Tortoises

Volunteer Kimi Sharma won a contest for most volunteer hours worked in June: 71 hours!

Volunteer Kimi Sharma checks on a resident of the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

I’m always amazed to see volunteers bouncing into the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center at 5 a.m. to start the day. Most of our volunteers drive long distances to give of their time and help the tortoises. We had wonderful volunteers this season, all very dedicated! They have already put in over 600 hours so far this season!

Our volunteer coordinator, Lori Scott, did a great job coordinating, orientating, and keeping up with the various schedules of the volunteers. Lori’s job was to also make sure they felt appreciated and were gaining a valuable experience. Kimi Sharma won a contest for most volunteer hours worked in June: 71 hours! Before Kimi left to head back to school in Boston, she had acquired 155.5 hours of volunteer work. Kimi was kind enough to bring all of us lunch on her last day, which we appreciated very much…I don’t think she really wanted to leave!

The volunteers work really hard in the hot summer sun right along with staff watering, feeding, and helping us care for all the desert tortoises on site. We appreciate every hour the volunteers give of their time to help out the tortoises they care for. Volunteers help us out tremendously, and we couldn’t do our job without them!

We are now gearing up for translocation season and are always looking for volunteers to help out—it’s such an awarding experience! If you are in or going to be in the Las Vegas area and wish to help with volunteering, email us at DTCC@sandiegozoo.org.

Angie Covert is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Internship at Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.


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.


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.


Internship at Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

Our student interns help desert tortoise conservation in a big way!

Our student interns help desert tortoise conservation in a big way!

Throughout 2012, the staff at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center worked with students from a local high school, West Career & Tech Academy (see Students Help Desert Tortoises). The students were very interested in science and receiving hands-on experience, and we were happy to help out any way we could to expose the students to real-world experiences and to gain a little help of our own. West Tech started an internship program and asked us to participate; we, of course, were happy to help and keep the partnership alive. We thought of a number of projects the interns could work on and found the perfect fit. Our first interns, Gendie Gonzales and Cheyenne Taylor, were interested in participating in duties at the DTCC, but since it’s winter here, we had to come up with an indoor project that would benefit all.

The sample-filled tubes await organizing.

The sample-filled tubes are organized and banked, thanks to our interns.

An experienced biologist had collected over 4,000 biological samples (such as plasma, red plasma, red blood cells, ticks, and oral swabs) from desert tortoises at various Mojave Desert sites over the past summer. We needed help banking or organizing all the sample-filled tubes that were in plastic bags with a date on them when given to us. Banking these important samples is not an easy task and takes a lot of time and meticulous effort to ensure no mistakes are made. These samples are important, because they will be around for a long time and will help give us invaluable information about wild desert tortoise genetics and health.

The internship is a great way to give students a look into a career in conservation biology and give us a helping hand at the DTCC. We look forward to the continuing partnership in 2013!

Angie Covert is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Promoting Desert Tortoise Care.


Desert Tortoise: Winter Improvement Tips

A desert tortoise patrols its backyard habitat.

As the temperature drops outside and desert tortoises are slumbering in their burrows, we here at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center are busy catching up on projects around the site. This is also a perfect time for desert tortoise custodians to work on home projects and make habitat improvements for their own pet tortoise in preparation for the spring emergence. You might be a seasoned tortoise custodian or just getting started; either way, here are some simple and helpful tips for making the home habitat safe and interactive for your tortoise.

Tip 1: Escape-proof Your Yard
When a pet desert tortoise escapes from a yard, it isn’t usually a family member that leaves a gate open but a gardener or meter reader that didn’t know a tortoise was in the yard. Unfortunately, once a pet tortoise escapes, it is not always easy to reunite him with the custodian. An easy fix for preventing this mishap is to add a simple and removable gate barrier. The barrier should be at least 18 inches high and made of a solid material. A large piece of particleboard is a good option, which can be secured by placing four cinder blocks (one on each side) on both ends of the board. This design works great, especially if there is a need for the board to be removed temporarily. Once the gate barrier is in place, take a look at the entire fence line and make sure it is secure and free of holes or breaches.

Tip 2: Eliminate Hazards
Bundle up with a scarf and a pair of gloves and enjoy some family time, outdoors! This is a great time of year to clean up your yard and look for hazards that may harm your tortoise. Desert tortoises are excellent climbers, and they may try to climb over piles of debris or unused equipment, which can be hazardous if the tortoise falls backward, getting trapped on its “back.” Look for other hazards to fix, like an unfenced pool or water feature, which a tortoise could fall into. By sprucing up your yard this winter, you can make it a safer environment for your family pet this spring!

Colorful globemallow is a favorite food of the desert tortoise.

Tip 3: Spring Planting
Spring is right around the corner, so now is a great time to start thinking about greenery you can add to your yard when the weather warms up! Desert tortoises are natural foragers, and they love to roam the yard munching on plants and grasses. Tortoise- friendly forage such as globemallow, primrose, hibiscus, and Bermuda grass will help provide your pet tortoise with the right nutrition throughout the active season. Check with your local nursery for availability and growing recommendations for your climate.

Lori Scott is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoises Spotlight Teacher Workshop.


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.


Promoting Desert Tortoise Care

Angie (in middle) and other DTCC staff help promote desert tortoise care at the Plant Sale.

Spring is here, and the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) is gearing up for the 2012 season. Tortoises are emerging from hibernation, and local custodians of tortoises have lots of questions for the DTCC staff!

One of our roles is to help educate Las Vegas residents about wild and pet desert tortoises. Attending local events such as the Springs Preserve Plant Sale is one way to reach people. The plant sale sells native Mojave Desert plants, which are more water efficient for yards in Las Vegas. It’s also a great opportunity to work with a local partner and educate the public on proper plants for pet tortoise habitats. The event gives us the opportunity to talk to people one on one and answer questions. We can also hand out important information to desert tortoise custodians, such as a list of native foods and plants they can add to their backyards.

It’s very important for people to know how to properly care for their pet tortoise! This year, we had a number of interested people who wanted to know what we do for desert tortoises and how they can help. We were able to explain our efforts in recovering the wild desert tortoise and the research projects we are working on. Our goal is to relocate tortoises back into the desert; the DTCC is the only legally authorized organization allowed to do this.

We also encouraged Springs Preserve Plant Sale attendees to volunteer at the DTCC, which is a great way to learn more about what we do. We had a sign-up sheet and information about the type of volunteer work they could do to help the desert tortoise!

If you are interested in volunteering, please email us at DTCC@sandiegozoo.org.

Angie Covert is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoises Get Great Care.


With a Little Help from Our Friends

Boy Scouts Orlando Arnold, Jr. and Cory Chatterton are hard at work making artificial burrows for our tortoises.

I’ve spent over 10 years working in conservation, and no matter where in the world you end up, whether it’s here in the States, down in South America, or halfway around the world in New Zealand or Australia, one thing is painfully clear: there’s a lot of important conservation work that needs to be done and there never seems to be enough resources to get us to where we want to be. Though the budget shortfalls sometimes make the work a bit more difficult, one area in which I’ve been repeatedly amazed is the great support we often receive from members of the community and enthusiastic folks who come out and donate their time and a bit of sweat helping us get our work done. Conservation and the science behind it is not a solitary endeavor. Many people go into making every project succeed, and I just wanted to take this opportunity to remind all of you who may have helped with a conservation project (with San Diego Zoo Global or otherwise) or are thinking about volunteering that your time and enthusiasm really do make a huge difference!

Volunteer Simon Madill works on some fence repair for our on-site tortoise research.

Here at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, spring is standing on our doorstep, and we’re all preparing for the start of a new field season. Our research team is getting ready to embark on some new projects here on site, one of which required us to fix up some old tortoise pens that had fallen into disrepair over the past 10 to 15 years. This was a HUGE undertaking and one that would have taken me months of digging artificial burrows and fencing ditches as well as updating and fixing the fences for over 20 100-foot-long pens. A couple of months ago I was beginning to wonder how I was ever going to get it all done and if we’d have anywhere to put our tortoises in the spring. But the world works in mysterious ways, and just in the last month we’ve had some amazing volunteers lend a hand.

Members of the Nevada Conservation Corps after two days of fixing fences in our experimental tortoise pens.

Troop 336 with the Boy Scouts of America, Las Vegas Area Council, led by Cory Chatterton, some members of the Nevada Conservation Corps, and one of our long-term volunteers, Simon Madill, came to my rescue. Nearly 40 people came out over several days, and after some long hours of swinging shovels and pick axes in the desert sun and hours of cutting and tying up fencing, we have finally finished 20 tortoise pens!

All the enthusiasm and hard work of our volunteers mean that this spring we are able to start our tortoise behavior study. I am hopeful that the things we learn will help to improve our future reintroductions of animals back into the wild.

Jennifer Germano is a postdoctoral researcher at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Tortoises and Their Amazing Feats.


Do Tortoises Wear Shower Caps?

As a San Diego Zoo Global researcher based at our Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, one of the things that really inspires my belief that the desert tortoise has a chance of surviving the threat of extinction is the interest it garners from completely uninvolved individuals. In the far northeast region of the country (read: Massachusetts), a children’s literature author (fine, she’s my mother), who had never heard of the desert tortoise until I joined the DTCC team, became inspired to help save it. Her contribution is a poem highlighting the trials and tribulations of being a highly sought-after pet in the Las Vegas area.

The idea came about as I was explaining to her that we recommend that people who call the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline place a tortoise to be picked up in a box in a temperature-controlled room, such as the bathroom. I would like to share her poem in this forum for tortoise fans to read because it is both highly entertaining and accurate!

Do Tortoises Wear Shower Caps?

by R. G. Gokool

I found a tortoise in my bathroom and asked,

“Do tortoises wear shower caps?”

He replied, “Not at all,

For it could slip off, and I could fall.”

“Your shell is so pale,

Would you like some polish, or some glitter on it and your nails?”

“Most certainly not, I use my shell to protect me when it’s hot,

And to hide from my enemy,

Not to stand out and say, ‘come and get me.’”

“Would you like to come with me to the parking lot?”

“No, I’ve been there before and had to withdraw into my hump,

As people tried to use me for a speed bump.”

“Are you hungry? Would you like some dog food or monkey chow?”

“No, no way, no how!

I’m a desert animal, not a mammal,

I like cactus fruit, fevertail, and native grasses.

Not food that gives me lumps and makes me gaseous.”

“Can I use you for a stepstool?”

“No, you can break my shell, and that would be cruel.”

“Would you like to go for a swim?

We can go to the pool and jump right in.”

“No, I come from the desert, nice and hot.

Not from the briny deep

Where all the sea turtles sleep.”

“Would you like to meet my dog, Spot?”

“Certainly not!

“He may be cute, but not too bright,

He’ll chew my leg off in one bite!”

“Can I give you and your hatchlings to my friend?”

“If you do, you’ll find it’s illegal and you’ll pay a fine in the end.”

“Can I take you home and make you mine?”

“If you do, you’ll have to pay a $10,000 fine.”

“Can I pick you up and give you a hug?”

“No, ‘cause then I would pee,

And there are no plants for me

To get water to keep hydrated, so you see.”

“Can I put you in my fish tank indoors?”

“No, ‘cause I live outside. I didn’t come from a pet store.”

If you see a tortoise from your car,

Just admire him from afar.

Do not be sad if he doesn’t wave,

For he’s not that friendly a fellow,

He just wants to be left alone in his burrow.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Bacteria, Viruses, and Disease, Oh My!


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.