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Desert Tortoise: Food and Habitat

Madhura Pandit
Desert tortoise is one of the four prominent species of tortoises found in North America. It inhabits only the deserts of Mojave and Sonoran, in Southwestern U.S. Here is more information on it.
Desert tortoise is a large, herbivorous reptile. It is found in the deserts of southwestern U.S. and Mexico. Texas, Gopher and Bolson are the other species of tortoise found in North America. Earlier, large numbers of tortoise were seen in the deserts, but, now their number has reduced markedly. The desert tortoise is now amongst Earth's endangered species.
This tortoise can grow up to 10-14 inches; while the largest known is 15 inches in length. Its shell is dome-shaped and of dark brown or greenish shade. The front limbs have claw-like features to dig. Both, male and female desert tortoises have a characteristic gular horn.
The horn of the female tortoise is shorter than that of the male. This helps to differentiate between a male and a female tortoise. The desert tortoise mates in fall and spring. The female lays 3-5 eggs. Badgers, roadrunners, coyotes and ravens are the prominent predators of this animal.


Tortoises are herbivores. The desert tortoise mostly thrives on grass, wildflowers and new-growths of different cacti. Its food preferences depend on the availability of plants. It mostly consume herbaceous perennial plants.
The species of wildflowers consumed by the desert tortoise are coreopsis, phaselis, spurge, lupines, forget-me-not and lotus. In dry seasons, it feeds on dry plants. The tortoise drinks water collected in pools and ponds. Its water intake is also through the moisture found in grass and wildflowers. It makes use of its claws to dig, while searching for water.
The desert tortoise also has a characteristic feature of storing water in its body. Whenever it finds water, it drinks it excessively. The amount of water stored in the bladder of the tortoise can be equal to 40% of its body weight.
The adult tortoise can survive for nearly one year without water. When there is scarcity of water, it excretes only solid waste. Hence, storing the water in its body.


The desert tortoise can live in very hot regions having temperatures up to 140 degrees F (i.e. 60 degrees C). It digs burrows and lives underground to escape the heat. Its burrows can be 2-10 ft deep. The size of the burrow depends on the type of soil, age of the tortoise and the purpose it serves.
A burrow protects it from extreme heat and cold as well as predators. The burrow of the female tortoise may also contain nests. The nest can be at the mouth of the burrow or deep inside. It also builds temporary burrows that are smaller in size at the time of foraging.
The desert tortoise is inactive for the most part of the year. It remains in the burrow in the month of May to avoid heat. As the temperature rises, all the flora of the desert gets dried up. October to February is the hibernation period of this species of tortoise.
It can be seen frequently only in spring. Many of them are seen early in the mornings and late in the afternoons, during spring. It is also active in the summer rains. At this time, it ventures out of its burrows.
It is illegal to hunt, harm or collect the desert tortoise. It has been declared as a vulnerable (threatened) species. Therefore, it is the duty of every human to protect the rare desert tortoise.