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The Desert Tortoise is an iconic creature in these parts. People love these gentle and harmless vegetarians. Indeed, people shower so much affection on this creature that they sometimes inadvertently do it harm, as I will explain.
I see Desert Tortoises infrequently in my wanderings around the desert. I saw and photographed one about a year ago. Today, I saw another.
I came across this individual as I was walking a hiking trail at Sabino Canyon. The tortoise was right in the middle of the trail and I had to step over it in order to continue on my way. It was huge, by far the largest Desert Tortoise that I’ve ever seen, well over a foot long and probably weighing five pounds or more.
Desert Tortoises can live a very long time, so much so that no one is actually certain just how long they live. It’s believed that a lifespan of 80 years or more is not rare. This one was definitely a senior, judging not only from its size but from the myriad of scratches and marks on its shell. No telling how long it has been around, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the tortoise was born before the beginning of World War II.
Desert Tortoises are superbly adapted for desert life. They survive by eating vegetation that others might reject because it is spiny, thorny, or tough. They can go for extremely long periods without drinking. One evolutionary adaptation that works for them is that they retain their urine, extracting water from it. And, here’s where people may inadvertently harm these creatures. A desert Tortoise may react to being handled by excreting its urine all at once, a defensive move intended to discourage and disgust a would-be predator. That leaves the tortoise vulnerable to becoming dehydrated. So, people who “assist” tortoises that they find in the trail by picking them up and moving them may actually be causing problems for these animals.
I kept my distance from this tortoise, out of respect, although I made sure to get its portrait.
After a while, it left the trail and proceeded to head uphill on a steep adjacent slope. I wondered how it would be able to climb something so steep but the tortoise did just fine. Those short stubby legs aren’t built for speed but they’re definitely very strong.
Pictures taken with a Canon 5Diii, 180 f3.5L Macro Lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite. The first image was taken at ISO 320, f9 @ 1/160. The second image was taken at ISO 125, f8 @ 1/160.