In Our Backyard No. 6 (bonus): Warning! This is your Tortoise Service Announcement

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With rising heat, deadly drought, and erratic storms, the desert tortoise needs your help. And there are many things you can do, especially if you are camping over the weekend or driving to Las Vegas. Susanna Mann and Gabby Barnas from the Ivanpah Desert Tortoise Research Facility will tell you all the little things that make a big difference for our wildlife friends in the desert.

This is a special sixth bonus episode to In Our Backyard EP6: Life in the desert demands resilience, especially when lightning strikes

Read the full episode transcript below:

WARREN: Alright. So you just heard about how climate change is impacting the desert tortoises and maybe you want to help out. We’ve got some good news. There are things you can do to make sure the desert tortoises live long and happy lives. We brought back Gabby Barnas and Susanna Mann, they’re the wildlife techs at the Ivanpah Tortoise Research Facility. You heard from them in the Mojave Preserve episode. First up, what can happen if you see a tortoise on a hike? Here’s Gabby.

Gabby: One of the big things is to just leave them alone, admire them from a distance, and you can try to take pictures of them, but you don't want to put hands on them or even get too close and crowd them because they can start to feel really frightened and threatened in that time, which is a big risk for them. 

WARREN: I think a lot of people encourage their children to pick up the desert tortoise, especially if they're children who have had turtles of their own, right?

Gabby: Right. Yeah, it is. I understand as a wildlife lover myself, I understand that getting to see an animal up close is a totally different experience compared to seeing them from afar. But what we know about desert tortoise biology is that they are really susceptible to losing their water supply that they have. So one of the adaptations that they have to survive the desert is this bladder that holds their whole water supply for up to a year. And so they collect all that water, hold on to it, and use it as they need it. But when they're threatened or feel frightened by somebody picking them up, they may void or empty that bladder. And so then they've just lost their entire water supply. So if there is no rain for the foreseeable future after that happening, then they may not find water again and may die from dehydration. And so picking them up for a couple of minutes may make you happy for a couple of minutes, but you may threaten the life of that tortoise because they might lose all of the water that they have. 

WARREN: And, here’s another thing to think about. If you go on a hike on a hot, sunny day, a tortoise may seek shelter or shade under your vehicle while you're gone. It could get crushed when you drive away, so it's really important to make sure there aren't any hiding there before you start driving. But, you don’t really need to stop in the desert to help out the tortoise. Especially if you are making that mad dash to Las Vegas in your car.

Susanna: If you're going to be driving somewhere that goes through any kind of habitat that could be useful for desert tortoises, you want to be driving the speed limit because it's harder to slow down if you're going faster. Whenever I first got here in September, we had -- just here on the Preserve on I know just the one road that we use most often. I think we had about three that we found that had been hit and that was within like two weeks. It seems like it's a small number, but whenever you're talking about hitting big adults -- and it takes them about 10 to 20 years to be mature -- and so then by the time they're that age, then they're making babies, which is good. But then if you take them out after that, then you have to wait for the other generations to become old enough to start reproducing as well to replace them. So because they're such long lived animals and they're so little survival in the younger years, it's really important to maintain an adult population. So the numbers may seem low, but it actually makes a bigger impact than that.

WARREN: And it’s not just for the tortoise’s survival that slowing down is a good idea.

Susanna: Adult tortoises can be very solid. So depending on like where you hit them with your car, they can definitely cause damage to your car. And also, if there happens to be another car coming by and maybe someone swerves or like it does hit the tortoise and then bounces off in some other direction that can cause fatalities or injuries to people as well. 

WARREN: So slow down when you are going to Vegas. And keep an eye out...

Susanna: Especially if it's rained recently, then they are going to want to be moving, looking for puddles that they can soak up some water. And whenever they have gotten a little bit of dose of water, they will sometimes get a burst of energy. And so then they'll use that to their advantage to go looking for other desert tortoises or new places to dig a burrow. So you want to make sure you're very vigilant and keep an eye out for them. They sometimes appear like rocks almost whenever -- especially if they're like the smaller ones and you're off at a distance. So just keep an eye out for those. 

WARREN: If you do end up seeing a tortoise on the road, here’s what to do.

Susanna: First, make sure that your safety is paramount and that you're checking to make sure that there are no cars that are coming that could hit you, too. And then this is the only time that someone who is not under a scientific permit is allowed to touch a desert tortoise. Otherwise, it's actually a federal offense because they are under the Endangered Species Act. So if you're if you've stopped, you've taken safety precautions, then the best way to help it along is to gently pick it up and make sure that you're supporting the belly, the underside of the tortoise. So putting one hand underneath and then one hand on top of their shell is good to give them stability, but also make sure that you've got them in hand and you're not going to squeeze them too much. And then if you can hold them above the ground, only about one or two feet, that also minimizes their stress, because if you suddenly lift them up really high, then they could also get frightened and lose their water. So if you are able to hold them kind of just a little bit above the road very securely, and then you take them across the road in the same direction that they were going because they're often very stubborn animals. So if you end up taking them where they don't want to go, then they'll just try again. So as long as you're making sure that your safety is taken care of as well, then you can take care of the tortoise. And then I'm sure they will be very thankful for that. 

WARREN: We all know that the desert tortoise, like the chicken, crosses the road to get to the other side. But why do they do it? Why do they move? What are they looking for when they move around?

Susanna: It could be that they are looking for new territory. They could be a young juvenile that's looking to establish their own home range. Or if it's an adult, they could be out looking for a mate. Males will often wander a little bit more than females will because they're mating season is basically the whole season that they're active. So they're just looking for ladies all the time. So it could be that they're looking for a good time or looking to find a new place with better food or better soil to build burrows. 

WARREN: So. Keep your hands to yourself, unless there is an emergency. And, slow down. Treat the desert like you would your home...because for some, it is their home.

Gabby: Well, and it's not just tortoises that move along these roads, too. There's coyotes that cross the road. There's snakes that cross the road. There's plenty of desert species that because we built these roads that cut through their habitat, they're going to cross them. And so we have to do our best to try to, you know, not kill them as we travel through these roads. 

WARREN: Thanks to Gabby and Susanna and the entire Mojave Preserve crew for all that you do.



Warren Olney


Julie Carli