Operation Desert Tortoise

I’ll bet some of you thought the title was referring to Darwin, but Darwin is an African Sulcata, and desert tortoises are native to the Mojave and Sonoran Desert. They also happen to be the state reptile of both California and Nevada.

Currently their conservation status is deemed vulnerable as a threatened species. So why would they be exposed to a risky translocation?

A planned base expansion of The U.S. Marines training base in Twentynine Palms, California, threatens the reptiles’ habitat. The moving “vans” have been planned for several years, following detailed studies and protocol designs for optimum safety. More than 1,000 tortoises are currently on the move.

Fingers crossed!

To learn more about this unusual “airlift” you might enjoy this article published in the Marine Corps Times.

We’ve recently experienced some reptile movement at our house, too. It hasn’t involved transponders strapped to his shell, but Darwin is fully awake after his long winter’s nap.

I’ve been told that Sulcatas don’t hibernate, but Darwin definitely spends his winter with very little activity and almost no food. He tucks himself into the corner of our greenhouse with a heat lamp and timothy hay around him for a little extra warmth. Once in a while I tap on his shell and deliberately disturb him so that he will at least give me a little sign of life. I have a hard time not interfering!

Now that he’s awake, timothy hay and fresh spring weeds mixed with a little pumpkin is satisfying to him, and I must admit I breathe lighter when I see him up and around and eating. He spends his day pacing around the yard and taking in as much sun as he can find.

Then by late afternoon his internal clock sends him to the barn.

He’s often hiding and I get a little panicky if I can’t quickly find him–he has escaped before! With his size it’s hard to believe he can hide, but he often does!

He is a lot of responsibility, but he is a big part of our family and it’s so good to have him back!















33 thoughts on “Operation Desert Tortoise

    • Thank you for acknowledging our care, Gerlinde. I do think we hover over him at times, and I’m a bit guilty of treating my animals like people. It was another blogger who long ago told me to stop giving him so many delicious greens! Too much calcium isn’t good for him. So I’m afraid that my good intentions aren’t always best for him. But we DO try. 🙂

  1. Time to hide the succulents 😉 Fascinating article about the relocation Debra. I had never envisaged the Mojave desert as being home to anything other than Rattle Snakes! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Darwin did get out into the main yard again, Martin, and he was headed straight to the succulents. Poor guy. I really do wish we could give him a larger area, but I’m so concerned that he would get into the pond! And the Mojave desert is home to many species. During another tortoise “relocation program” the coyotes had a field day! This time the experts think there are more jackrabbits and small animals following our abundant rains and they’re hoping the coyotes are less interested in the tortoises. I really don’t want to know if this doesn’t go well!

      • That’s interesting Debra – presumably the current area where the Tortoises live has a low population of Coyotes? I hope they’ve taken that into their planning when choosing the new location?

        I’m doing my own ongoing relocation – Mice from the house down to the local nature reserve. We get an influx of them in the Autumn and Spring.

    • I can be a bit silly with Darwin, Jo. One year it got so cold outside I insisted that we bring him in the house. I got him all warm and cozy in a giant box, but hadn’t considered that once he was warm he would “wake up.” So the next thing I knew I had this giant guy walking through my kitchen. That’s wasn’t a good idea. LOL! I am not a very good naturalist. I interfere!

  2. I’m with Darwin…I wish I could do the same in the winter season, but I am wide awake now and out and about these sun-filled days of glory. Happy Spring Debra & Darwin sounds like another blog name!

    • i’ll bet you do relate to hibernation, Cristina! And it sounds like you’ve been able to emerge back into life in the sunshine! I’m so glad for you. What an adjustment you’ve been making, and now let’s hope you and your sweet family can explore and make up for the long winter. 🙂

    • It really is fascinating to watch a reptile with personality! I have a dream of setting up a webcam so that I can share his activity more broadly. If there are webcams for sea lions who often only sunbathe, I think Darwin should have his own! Maybe someday! 🙂

  3. Darwin is super smart . . . to wake up just in time for Spring!
    Like you, I wouldn’t be able to resist the occasional tap to make sure he was still breathing. 😀

    • The thing about my checking on him during his winter nap is that if I couldn’t rouse him I’d probably panic! Nonetheless, I can’t help it! LOL! Now we just have to continue to keep him out of trouble. That’s a challenge. 🙂

  4. That’s quite the research project the Marines have going on. Impressive!
    It is hard to imagine your Darwin could escape, but I know better! Anything that can, will, including the African Sultcata!

    • Isn’t it interesting about the Marines, Gail? I was so impressed with the coordinated effort to care for these reptiles. I heard about the Operation on an NPR segment and I couldn’t wait to read more. Darwin is so strong that if he gets hungry he beats his hard shell against the wooden fence or the gate and I honestly think he could bust through! Every year, as he grows larger, we have to strengthen our defenses! I still think he can outsmart us, though! LOL!

  5. I’ve been wondering about Darwin and how things were going with his long winter’s nap. It is good to know that he has been up and about, if rather reluctantly, and that he is well. You are such a good human to your Sulcata. 🙂
    I see in your response to another comment that the coyotes were a big problem with tortoises. They are a problem here, too. Two winters ago, we discovered two doe that had been taken down in our yard. It was horrible, compounded by snow which accented the carnage. From where they were, close together, we knew it was a spot the deer often slept in. The coyote got them while they were sleeping. 😦

    • Your experience with coyotes is really disturbing, Penny. I know we all need to accept the realities of “the pecking order,” but I don’t have to like it! We have more and more coyotes coming into our neighborhoods as their natural habitats are disturbed, and they are often seen carrying small pets. I never get used to it. I don’t know what I’d do if I saw what you did, two doe right in your own yard. You and I both do so much to celebrate “nature,” but I’m not a full-throttle naturalist–I’d interfere if I could, I’m sure! 🙂

      • It was, and still is as it comes to mind often. The poor deer had no warning/defense and small pets have even less. There is a rather elite suburb not to far that has an ordinance that homeowners with pets need to install invisible fences so the dogs can’t roam. Recently, however, there was what I will call an epidemic of coyotes who aren’t collared, taking the poor things. On a more pleasant note, I am seeing so many hawks and eagle, egrets and heron this year – and spring seems to be here to stay. Hope all is well with you, my friend.

        • All is well, Penny. We are sort of stuck in slow gear after a bumpy start to the year but I think that’s good for us! Observing birds and signs of spring is uplifting! I’d be so thrilled to see an eagle above! Not too likely where I live but I am always on the lookout for something unexpected! Lol!

  6. This is wonderful how you care so much for Darwin. A great situation and learning experience for your grandchildren, too.
    I would be tapping on his shell, annoying him and interrupting his long winter’s “nap.” 🐢 Thanks for sharing about the project to save 1000 desert tortoises! So cool that this base shows they care about the possible displaced animals. 💚

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