Desert Tortoise

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Species group:

Scientific name: Gopherus agassizii

The Basics:
This inoffensive desert specialist was once collected in huge numbers for the pet trade. Sadly, the vast majority of those unfortunate creatures perished through lack of proper care. US populations are now protected under state and Federal law.

The Desert Tortoise is found in southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, southwestern California, and western Arizona, USA, and south to Sinaloa, Mexico. It is limited to sand-gravel deserts and their associated canyon bottoms and rocky hillsides.

Appearance / Health:
The domed carapace is flattened on top, tan to near-black in color, and bears light yellow to orange blotches. The skin is tan to reddish-brown. Adults measure 25-38 cm (10-15 inches) in length.

Well-cared-for Desert Tortoises have achieved captive longevities exceeding 80 years. They are especially susceptible to respiratory infections. Metabolic bone disease is common in animals that are not provided with ample calcium and/or UVB exposure, and the lack of a moist retreat may result in irregular shell formation. Fiber-poor and protein-rich diets cause digestive disorders.

Behavior / Temperament:
Desert Tortoises are somewhat shyer than most of their relatives (perhaps understandable, given the species’ experiences with pet-keepers!). Like most turtles, they dislike being handled and carried about.

Desert Tortoises need spacious enclosures, and usually fare poor in indoor environments of any type. Outdoor facilities are necessary in order to obtain a state/federal permit to keep this species. Drinking water should be available, and the animals should also be soaked in a tub of shallow water for 15-20 minutes, 1-2x weekly.

A 6-8 inch deep mix of sand and soil is the best substrate. The substrate should be of a depth that allows the tortoise to create a shallow depression for night-time use.

Exposure to UVB light is essential. Mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances than do florescent models, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well. Temperatures should range from 75-85 F, with a basking site of 90 F and a dip to 70-75 F at night. Provide your pet with the largest home possible, so that a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) can be established. Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow turtles to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cooler areas.

Females and youngsters often co-exist, but must be watched as dominance hierarchies develop. Males usually fight if housed together.

Desert Tortoises consume a diet that is high in fiber and calcium and low in protein and fat. In the wild, they feed almost exclusively on grasses, herbaceous plants and flowers. High protein foods such as beans and dog food should be strictly avoided.

In the warmer months, native grasses, weeds, and flowers should, if possible, comprise the bulk of your tortoises diet (learn to identify toxic species). The following are readily accepted by most individuals:

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum),

Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.)

Hawkweeds (Pictis spp.)

Clovers (Trifolium spp.)

Cat's ears (Hypochoeris spp.)

Mallows (Malva spp.)

Sedums (Sedum spp.)

Chickweed (Stelaria media)

Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium sp.)

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

Plantains (Plantago spp.)

The balance of the diet should include seasonally available greens such as kale, endive, Swiss chard, mustard/collard greens, and romaine. Other produce can be added as available, but avoid spinach and iceberg lettuce, and use bok-choy sparingly. Commercial grassland tortoise diets may be added to your pet’s salad, but should not be used as a mainstay.

Most meals provided to growing animals should be powdered with a calcium source. Vitamin/mineral supplements should be used 2-3 times each week. Both can be reduced to once weekly for well-nourished adults. A calcium block or cuttlebone may be left in the terrarium for “as needed” use (not all individuals will consume calcium in this form).

Captive breeding is prohibited under Federal and state law. If eggs are produced, the US F&W Service should be contacted for guidance.

In the wild, mating occurs after emergence from hibernation. Females produce 1-15 eggs.

Written by Frank Indiviglio


personality, interesting classroom pets, rescue organizatio


escape artist, desert tortoise Houdini, Large Yard, special care needs, wild populations


low maintenance, annual clutch, eventual extinction

Helpful Desert Tortoise Review

Desert Tortoise

From erinsoule May 23 2015 4:40PM


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