By May spring wildflowers have crisped into mere scaffoldings for seeds. Underfoot the soil is loose and the air itself feels bone dry. Out hiking, I descend into a dip in the Desert Classic Trail, a place where cyclists speed down and pedal madly up again. I’m startled to see a Desert Tortoise come lurching towards me. She pitches side to side down the slick slope. Scrape, scrape go her fin-like feet. Once she reaches shady cover, she drops her shell to the ground and slides shiny black eyes towards me.
Desert Tortoises are ancient creatures, having existed on the planet for 50 million years. And they live long, 40 years or more. Their reptilian features, and their awkward gait make them fascinating creatures. These animals live underground in burrows much of the time, dormant and protected from extremes of heat and cold. They come out in pleasant weather and cooler times of summer days to feed, to find water and to mate. Desert Tortoise eats spring wildflowers and summer annuals that grow after monsoon rains. She can digest dried plant material, if she has been able to find water.
Because water in the desert is rare, Desert Tortoise stores the precious liquid in her bladder, enough to get by for months. In fact, water can make up 40 % of her body weight. This allows the tortoise to survive without drinking from winter rains until summer monsoons.
If frightened, a tortoise will void its bladder, compromising its ability to survive. People are urged to keep away from Desert Tortoises, and to certainly not pick them up, even if they are found on a roadway. (I guess you stop traffic instead!)
Arizona Department of Game and Fish handles a Desert Tortoise adoption program. Tortoises that have been in human contact, either from illegal breeding or handling, are prevented through this program from being returned to the wild, where they may spread disease among the native populations.