The Living Desert
Home  >  Education  >  Desert Tortoise  >  About the Desert Tortoises

About the Desert Tortoises

About the Desert Tortoises

About the Desert Tortoises

The desert tortoise is the grand survivor of California’s deserts, having roamed it’s landscape for tens of thousands of years, but you aren’t likely to see this amazing animal when visiting the deserts of California. To escape ground temperatures that can reach 140 degrees, desert tortoises spend most of their time underground in burrows. Whether you’re lucky enough to see one in the wild or not, you need to know a few things about them. The desert tortoise is in trouble, and what you do in the desert can affect this species’ survival.

You may notice the half-moon-shaped holes that punctuate the desert landscape. These are the entrances to the burrows desert tortoises dig to cope with the extreme desert temperatures.

Desert tortoises leave their burrows, often located in the shade of bushes on the open sandy flats or in the banks of dry washes, mainly to eat and drink. They build up most of their fat and water reserves in the spring, when the desert is abloom with wildflowers, grasses and other succulent green plants. They store up to a year’s supply of water in their canteen-like bladders, absorbing it as needed. In winter they retreat to their deepest burrows.

Well-adapted as the desert tortoise is to its harsh environment, this ancient species is defenseless against the changes caused directly or indirectly by the growing human population. More people in the desert leads to the degradation of tortoise habitat in many ways. As a result of these changes, the number of wild desert tortoises has sharply declined.

desert tortoise close up

THREATENED The desert tortoise is now on the federal list of threatened species and is protected by state and federal law.

desert tortoise map

The Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) can be found in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts of southern California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

Conservation Tips

Researchers are closely monitoring desert tortoise populations and working to address the threats they face by the following tips.

Keep the Desert Clean
Don’t dump or litter. Desert tortoises can get tangled in trash, and garbage attracts ravens and other predators that feed on tortoises, their eggs and hatchlings. And don’t feed ravens!

Leave them Alone
It is against the law to touch, harm, harass or collect a wild desert tortoise. When alarmed, tortoises void their bladders and waste precious stored water—a reaction that can prove fatal for tortoises unable to replenish the supply. Stay at least 10 feet away from any tortoise you spot, and keep dogs leashed at all times.

Stay on Designated Roads & Trails
Don’t drive, bike or walk off trails or roads except in designated areas. Cross-country travel in the desert can crush tortoise burrows, burying the occupants underground or stranding tortoises on the surface where they are vulnerable to predators and deadly temperature extremes. Traveling cross-country also disturbs the soil promoting the growth of invasive plants that are less nutritious for tortoises.

Check Under Parked Vehicles
Desert tortoises may seek shade beneath parked cars, trucks and recreational vehicles. If you park in the desert, look under your vehicle before you drive.


desert tortoise outside

The slow-moving desert tortoise is no match for motorized vehicles. Whether on a paved highway or a dirt road, be on the lookout wherever you drive in the desert.

Watch for Tortoises on Roads & Trails

Desert tortoises readily cross roads and trails, but the slow-moving species is no match for bikes, cars, trucks and off-highway vehicles. Be alert and proceed with caution!

Don’t Release Pet Tortoises in the Desert
A pet tortoise released in the wild probably won’t survive and may infect resident tortoises with disease. Wild desert tortoises are susceptible to upper respiratory infections and other diseases linked to captive tortoises. If you have a pet tortoise and can no longer care for it, call the nearest chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club found at

Tortoise Tidbits

Researchers are closely monitoring desert tortoise populations and working to address the threats they face by the following tips.

If you spot a wild desert tortoise in its native habitat, it is very important that you not touch or handle it.

The ONLY time it is okay to touch a wild tortoise is in an emergency situation where you encounter a desert tortoise on a road, and in imminent danger of being hit by a vehicle.

desert tortoise on the road

If you encounter this situation, please follow these 3 steps:
1. Go low and slow – move the tortoise keeping it low to the ground, and move it slowly.
2. Move the tortoise in the direction it was already moving.
3. Place the tortoise in a shady spot 50-100 feet off the road.

Download the Desert Tortoise brochure

Zoo News