Desert Tortoise — An Icon
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Tohono Chul Park covers a few dozen acres and has a series of attractive gardens that contain both native and imported vegetation. It’s not really a desert preserve, like Sabino Canyon, but it is a pleasant place to visit and there are usually a few good photo opportunities there.
When I was there the other day, I was walking around when I saw a very large Desert Tortoise sitting on the ground a few yards away from me. Desert Tortoises are an iconic species in the Tucson area, symbolic of our desert and much beloved. Just about everyone I’ve ever spoken to has affection for these big tortoises. They are burrow dwellers that spend much of their lives underground. Like all reptiles, they are cold blooded, which means that they have slow metabolisms. That enables them to conserve energy by remaining dormant much of the year. They are vegetarians, feeding on desert plants, and they are extremely efficient at obtaining water from what they eat. So much so, in fact, that they are able to reprocess their urine internally, extracting water from the waste material.
These animals can live a long time, many decades, in fact. They grow to an impressive size. A really big Desert Tortoise is almost as large in diameter as a medium pizza and weighs several pounds. When one sees one of these creatures out and about in the desert, it is invariably phlegmatic, moving at a very slow and deliberate pace.
This one was obviously used to the presence of people, due no doubt to the fact that there are many daily visitors to the confined space of Tohono Chul Park. Nevertheless, I was surprised by its behavior when we encountered each other. The tortoise determinedly followed me at its deliberate pace as I wandered along the path. When I stopped walking it kept coming until it was only a couple of feet away from me. Then, it stopped and stared at me as if it was expecting something. When I resumed walking so did the tortoise. The tortoise approached so closely that I couldn’t resist making a portrait.
I’m certain that this was learned behavior. Tortoises in the wild are indifferent to the presence of people. This tortoise is not only habituated to humans but has been rewarded by them. Someone, park staff no doubt, has given it snacks from time to time. I got the distinct impression that it would follow me anywhere in anticipation of receiving a few leaves of lettuce.
Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, ISO 160, f11 @ 1/160.