Saturday, May 9, 2009

Life in the Desert


The Mojave Desert comes alive in the month of March, as ground temperatures rise. With increased sunlight, plants begin their new growth and soon the barren desert will be adorned with an artist’s palette of color. The warm days and abundance of wildlife entice me to take the top off my CJ7 Jeep and go out exploring for photos.

When I’m driving on dirt roads in the desert, I always keep careful watch for any creature that might also be sharing the trail. Desert tortoises come out from hibernation in March and are very active during the day, replenishing their diet on the new foliage. Unlike the smaller, faster reptiles, the large land-dwelling gopher tortoise moves slowly, as it ambles along. I have only encountered two desert tortoises in the wild, and both times they were traveling across the same road that I was using. To avoid causing them any harm, I stopped my vehicle at a distance, and took photos until they were clear of the road. In most cases, it is illegal to touch a desert tortoise, however if one is trying to cross a busy road, it may be moved out of harm’s way. The Department of the Interior Park Service recommends that a desert tortoise should be gently picked up and carried level to the ground. It should then be moved to the opposite side of the road, and placed in the same direction that it was heading.
A desert tortoise will spend most of its life underground in burrows that are dug in loose soil. The burrows are shallow and may extend from the tortoise’s shell to several feet in length. The shallowness of the burrows, combined with the loose consistency of soil makes them vulnerable to surface pressure. Walking or driving off established trails can be harmful to the tortoise’s habitat and may also damage the fragile desert ecosystem.

A mature desert tortoise can grow to a length of 9 to 15 inches, and some have been known to live up to 100 years; however 14 to 20 years is the average life span. This desert tortoise photographed by a crescent milk vetch plant was around 12 inches long.
Desert tortoises are not aquatic, but are terrestrial creatures of the Testudinidae family. They do not swim, or have webbed feet, and only go near water for drinking or bathing. Because they live in burrows, their limbs are designed for digging with well-developed claws on elephantine legs. An interesting fact about the desert tortoise is that it will dig a depression in the soil for rainwater to collect, where it patiently waits, sensing that it is going to rain.

The habitat of the desert tortoise is determined largely by the soil consistency in which it can burrow. A number of native plants and wildflowers that subsidize the tortoise’s diet in the spring also prefer lose, gravelly areas of the desert, and can be found along canyon bottoms or in desert washes. These plants include Locoweed, Hairy Lotus, Desert Dandelion, Rock Gilia, Desert Lupine, Blazing Stars and Globe mallow. The areas where the plants grow tend to receive additional moisture from spring monsoons in the form of run-off water. By eating the new moist foliage, the desert tortoise will also supplement most of its water intake for the coming year.

Since April 2, 1990, the desert tortoise has been under the protection of the Endangered Species Act; therefore it is a violation of federal law to touch, harm, harass or collect one. The desert tortoise was categorized as a threatened species after the population reached a 90 percent decline in the 1980’s. The main cause of this decline was urban development; followed by livestock grazing, off-road vehicles, and increases in the raven populations.

As an avenue for promoting good will and responsibility among public land users, the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association developed the Mojave Max Education Program. It is coordinated through the Bureau of Land Management, with Mojave Max, an actual living desert tortoise, as the logo and mascot.

Mojave Max was photographed at the Desert Tortoise Habitat opening ceremonies, in the Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area Visitor’s Center.

For additional information, please visit the following links:

What an exciting and interesting photo-adventure this day has been.  I love it when I am drawn to an area and not knowing what to expect I get treated to new experiences. 

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 "Reflecting Nature's Artistry" 

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