Desert Tortoise

We came home on Saturday from a week-long trip to Mexico to find a visitor waiting by our front door. This is a Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), one of the rarer sights here in the Sonoran desert. It has been more than a decade since the last one I spotted, an even larger (and older) tortoise that ambled into my yard one day to munch on wildflowers.


This one was after some bird seed on our front porch. He (I think it was a male, but it’s not easy to tell) ignored me while I took a few photos, then wandered back into the weeds to eat some little wild berries that spring up here after the summer rains.

Tortoises can live into their 80’s, but they are a vulnerable species. Only a handful out of every hundred hatchling tortoises makes it to adulthood, and as their habitat is disturbed more and more by development, their numbers decline.


Notice the growth ridges on the shell, which continues to expand as the tortoise grows. They live a large part of their lives underground in burrows dug with their powerful legs and sharp claws. They exit during the monsoons to find as much water as possible, which they store up and live on during the rest of the year.

It was encouraging to see this little guy. It gave me hope that the desert creatures are finding ways to cope with my intrusion into their habitat.

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  1. That is so cool! I get excited when I see a lizard or a roadrunner, but theyre’ nothing compared to a tortoise. (How come the genus name is “Gopherus”? Shouldn’t that be for gophers?)

  2. Yes, Skye, cool indeed. Here’s something I found on “gopherus”:

    “Gopherus – French – gaufre – small burrowing animal — probably refering to its burrowing habits”

    One author says the desert tortoise spends 95% of its time underground, either to escape the heat in summer or the cold in winter — hence, it burrows.

  3. Very COOL!! I had a flock of 20 wild turkeys in my yard this morning, but they’re not rare at all. (= What a cool opportunity to “meet” a creature that’s so rarely seen.

  4. Well, I was going to say, “Cool!”, but I see everybody else has too…oh well, I’ll just be unoriginal and say it…Cool!

  5. Wow. thats beautiful. I loved visiting there, the wildlife is so diverse and different than the east coast. very cool.

  6. Charlie,

    That is so cool! One thing I don’t get a perspective of from the photos is the tortoise’s size. How big was this one?


  7. Good to hear from you, Scott. I’d guess his shell was about 8 inches from front to back, and maybe 4 inches high as he walked. I picked him up to move him a short distance and he was big enough that my thumbs and index fingers didn’t touch as I grasped him around the middle.

  8. it is ulgy

  9. nikhil.bhandari says

    These photos r cool. I also have 2 tortoise.

  10. ya know if nature takes care of it…leave it alone! I have been studying tortoise’s for 30 years and if your think your can control them your wrong! They will borrow and take off after the winter. If you want to REALLY take care of them block off your yard area and do it deep. They will dig so if you are wondering where they are after the winter when the weather warms up don’t let them go! Make a safe undergrowned as well as above growned. Son’t trust anyone to care for you tortoise as well as you do, really do you think anyone will take care of your BABY when you are gone? Be Careful You Are worth It! Love, Sharon

  11. Great pictures! I rescued ued a desert tortoise. She is so interactive! Follows me around and hangs out by our feet. She has the run of our backyard. She comes in and out the dog door. She even walks down the sidewalk to our neighbors to eat his weeds with me. She just follows me. It is the cutest thing! She is sleeping the winter away in my closet right now. Here in AZ they need foster homes for them.

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