A Desert Tortoise Field Trip

It’s the hottest time of year in the Valley of the Sun, and the unavoidable and unrelenting desert summer heat prevents newcomers such as me and my family from fully exploring our new beautiful surroundings. This is a sad fact, although the reality is that our lives are so upended by the move that we have little room for field trips – it will be better come springtime when (1) we are more settled and (2) daily temperatures will be cooler and the desert will be blooming and full of life. My wife and daughter escaped the heat this week to visit family in Portland, OR – a place with almost opposite climatic conditions from here. The brief northwestern Oregonian summer with its dry warm days and blue blue skies are hard to beat. So I am glad they have a chance to have some fun in the sun without having to worry about their health, like they would here.

Meanwhile, in the Phoenix area I have been relegated to air-conditioned indoor activities at the lab, office and home. Pleasingly, I received an invitation from one of my new colleagues who studies tortoises to join the Arizona Fish and Wildlife Turtle Management Team as a volunteer on a tortoise-monitoring trip. Since I am part of a group that is planning on sequencing the Desert Tortoise genome for its conservation, I thought it was a serendipitous opportunity to actually meet one of our possible study organisms. We were to meet the team at the Sugarloaf Mountain Area in the Tonto National Forest, about one hour northeast of downtown Phoenix. In the summer, these excursion need to start early – both humans and animals need to avoid the midday heat – so I picked my colleague up at 4:30am. The habitat was beautiful. It’s amazing that these sprawling desert landscapes contain large desert reptiles!

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The Sugarloaf Mountain area in Tonto National Forest. There are tortoises wandering around this landscape, and we were searching for both tagged and un-tagged individuals.

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Here comes one now!

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Close-up of a desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai)

The team did manage to find tortoises but I forget the exact number. I was much more of a spectator on this trip, as it was my first excursion into the desert since we moved our here, and my field search image is not attuned to tortoises. So while these photos are my own, I had to rely on other more experienced folks to actually find the animals. They really just look like desert rocks, and they freeze when they see a person.

The extremely competent members of the turtle team were taking vital measurements of each tortoise as part of a long-term study tracking the growth and movements of desert tortoises that live in this part of the Sonoran Desert.ImageBeing out in the desert afforded an opportunity to see other reptiles, of course. Here are some pictures of an earless lizard (genus Holbrookia). During one rest point for the team, this individual was perched on a nearby rock giving us the business – which in lizard language consists of nasty looks and push-ups.Image

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You think you can take me?

Out of all the reptiles, you have to admire the chutzpah of some lizards. Upon being approached by humans, tortoises hide in their shells, snakes slither silently away, alligators dash messily to the water’s safety… but many species of lizards give humans displays of dominance almost right up until the last minute. Then they run away of course. But for the first few seconds it always seems like the little lizards really are sizing you up and thinking they can take you on.

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Believe it or not, the tortoises love this rocky terrain!

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