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Tortoises In Arizona

There are only 2 types of native tortoises in Arizona. Located in the Western United States, Arizona is home to many species including turtles. Turtles found in Arizona include mud turtles, ornate box turtles, the painted turtle, snapping turtles, and pond sliders.

There are two turtle species located in Arizona and these include the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and the Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai). Both tortoises belong to the genus Gopherus and as such are considered gopher tortoises.

Other tortoises such as Mediterranean tortoises and sulcata tortoises also fare very well in Arizona. The sulcata is particularly quite popular among tortoise enthusiasts in Arizona.

Tortoise Species Native to Arizona

1. Mojave Desert Tortoise

Adult mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in Mojave desert
Adult mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in Mojave desert – source
  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Gopherus agassizii
  • Other Common Names: Desert Tortoise
  • Adult Size: 6 to 14 inches
  • Lifespan: 60 to 80 years
  • Average Price Range: $200 to $300

Gopherus agassizii is a herbivorous and terrestrial turtle, it has a brown carapace that is high-domed and has elephantine legs. It is one of the six species of tortoises in North America.

Gopherus agassizii lives in the desert where temperatures can get extremely hot or extremely cold. To protect itself from these extremes, the Mojave desert tortoise spends almost all its time in shelters. These turtles only come out to bask, eat, and breed.

In the wild, this turtle feeds on desert plants. Eating the flowers, stems, and leaves of these plants. The Mojave desert tortoise doesn’t drink much and can go an entire year without drinking. This is only possible because this species can store water in its bladders for several months. The Gopherus agassizii acquires most of the water it needs from the succulents it eats.

Because of their protective shell and thick scaly skin, the Mojave desert tortoise has next to no predators as adults with mountain lions being the main predator of adult specimens.

Juveniles and hatchlings can be preyed on by a wide variety of animals such as feral dogs,  bobcats, roadrunners, Gila monsters, foxes, ravens, badgers, and several others.

The Mojave desert tortoise can be found to the north and west of the colorado river. Here they live in Mojave desert scrub.

The Mojave desert tortoise is also endangered and is listed under the ESA (Endangered Species Act). The main threats to the species are loss of habitat and invasion of exotic plant and animal species. Collection for the pet trade and vehicular accidents are also factors that threaten the survival of the species.

As you may already know, it is illegal to collect members of the species from the wild. It is also illegal to hunt, kill, or harm any desert tortoise found in Arizona. If you wish to jeep the Mojave desert tortoise as a pet, you may adopt one.

There are rules in place for the adoption of a Mojave desert tortoise.  If you wish to adopt a Mojave desert tortoise, you can visit Tortoise Adoption Program (https://www.azgfd.com/wildlife/nongamemanagement/tortoise/captivecare/).

Mojave desert tortoises are herbivorous and accept most foods offered to them. Ensure that the food you offer them is healthy for them. What may be healthy for a human may be unhealthy for the desert tortoise. 95 percent of the diet should compose of hay, weeds, scrubs, and flowers.

To be particular you can offer them grasses, dandelions, hibiscus, nopales, mulberry leaves, grape leaves, cheese mallow, chickweed, nutgrass, rose petals, nasturtiums, alfalfa, bermudagrass, timothy grass, and many more.

Check out our tortoise safe plants list for 100+ different typse of plants tortoises can eat.

In addition to weeds, flowers, scrubs, and hay, you can also succulents and dark leafy greens. This should only be offered as a supplement to the main diet. You can also offer fruits on the rarest of occasions. Because of the high sugar content of fruits, they should never become a staple.

Avoid canned foods, and foods high in protein or fats such as cat food and dog food. Also never offer celeries.

2. Sonoran Desert Tortoise

Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) by Andrew DuBois
Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) by Andrew DuBois
  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Gopherus morafkai
  • Other Common Names: Morafka’s desert tortoise
  • Adult Size: 6 to 14 inches
  • Lifespan: 60 years

Gopherus morafkai is a herbivorous and terrestrial turtle endemic to the Sonoran Desert. Prior to 2011, this species was considered a member of Agassiz’s desert tortoise.

While the Mojave desert tortoise is located west and north of the colorado river, the Sonoran desert tortoise is found east of the colorado river. The Sonoran desert tortoise is also found in the states of Sinaloa and Sonora in Mexico.

Similar to the Mojave desert tortoise, the Sonoran desert tortoise feeds almost exclusively on plants, with plants making up 95% of its diet.

Plants provide both nutrients and most of the water needs of the species. The species can go several months without drinking water as the species can store large amounts of water in its bladder and use this water over several months.

It is important not to pick up a Sonoran desert tortoise as they tend to release the water in their bladder when scared. This can leave the tortoise without the water it needs to survive.

Gopherus morafkai has tough scaly skin and a hard protective shell. This ensures that an adult Sonoran desert tortoise has next to no predators. Regardless of this, hatchlings, eggs, and juveniles have several predators such as badgers, Gila monsters, roadrunners, feral dogs, foxes, bobcats, and many more.

While very few Sonoran desert tortoises make it to age 20, once they do reach age 20, they are likely to live to be 50 to 80 years. As you can see this is a long-lived species.

The Sonoran desert tortoise can be found to the east of the colorado river. Here they live in Sonoran desert scrub. They can be found in western and central Arizona as well as northwestern Mexico.

The is yet to be classified under the Endangered Species Act or listed as threatened. However, they are quite rare. As such they are protected in Arizona.  Collection for the pet trade and vehicular accidents are also factors that threaten the survival of the species.

As with the Mojave desert tortoise, the Sonoran desert tortoise is protected by Arizona State law. This law makes it illegal to hunt, shoot, collect, harm, harass, kill, or trap members of this species. If you wish to adopt a specimen, you can visit Tortoise Adoption Program (https://www.azgfd.com/wildlife/nongamemanagement/tortoise/captivecare/). Sonoran desert tortoises are much easier to adopt than the Mojave desert tortoise.

As herbivores, these animals accept most plant matter you offer them. When kept in captivity feeding can be tricky as they aren’t picky eaters. You need to ensure that you feed them food healthy for tortoises. a few of such foods include alfalfa hay or pellets, bermudagrass, sowthistle, ryegrass, ricegrass, mallow, fresh clover, and clover hay.

In addition to weeds, grass, and hay, they also accept leafy greens such as watercress, turnip greens, mustard greens, grape leaves, endive, dandelion greens, and flowers, and collards.

They also accept succulents such as opuntia cactus pads and flowers.

Foods to avoid include iceberg lettuce, green and red-leaf lettuce, Boston lettuce, and romaine lettuce. These foods contain very little nutrients. Also, avoid giving these tortoises dog and cat food.

Common Captive tortoise not native to Arizona

Apart from the tortoise species native to Arizona ( that is the Sonoran desert tortoise and the Mojave desert tortoise), other tortoise species can be found in Arizona. These are captive tortoises. The two common captive tortoises found in Arizona include the sulcata tortoise and the leopard tortoise. 

3. Sulcata Tortoise

Wild Sulcata Tortoise also known as African Spurred Tortoises (Geochelone sulcata)
Wild Sulcata Tortoise also known as African Spurred Tortoises (Geochelone sulcata)

The sulcata tortoise is one of the largest tortoise species in the world. This massive tortoise can reach an adult size of almost 30 inches. Despite their large size, these chelonians are easy to care for and are hardy. Before you even consider adopting or acquiring one, ensure that you have the space to house them. These tortoises require a lot of room to thrive.

The species is endemic to the southern edge of the Sahara in countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Nigeria, and even Senegal. The wild populations aren’t limited to just Africa. They can also be found in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Similar to the desert tortoises, sulcatas inhabit arid zones. Their thick skin ensures that they lose little water to evaporation. Additionally, their skin can absorb large amounts of water. In addition to this, sulcata are tolerant of high temperatures as well as low temperatures.

These are herbivorous turtles and as such require a herbivorous diet. Make sure to offer the sulcatas a lot of grasses, weeds, and hay. Some excellent plants to offer include alfalfa hay or pellets, bermudagrass, sowthistle, ryegrass, ricegrass, mallow, fresh clover, and clover hay. They also accept flowers such as geraniums, hibiscus, rose petals, and nasturtiums.

You can also supplement their diet with green leafy vegetables such as parsley, beet greens, collard greens, dandelions, mustard greens, rhubarb, and many others. Avoid lettuce if you can as these contain little to no nutrients.

Sulcatas have been successfully bred in North America. This means that they are relatively easy to find in herp stores. They can also be adopted. Try using Tortoise Adoption Program (https://www.azgfd.com/wildlife/nongamemanagement/tortoise/captivecare/) to adopt a sulcata in Arizona.

4. Leopard Tortoise

Wild Leopard Tortoise walking in desert (Stigmochelys pardalis)
Wild Leopard Tortoise walking in desert (Stigmochelys pardalis)

The leopard tortoise is endemic to the arid regions of southern and eastern Africa. It can be found from South Sudan all the way to South Africa.  Since they prefer arid areas they cannot be found in the humid forests of central Africa.

These tortoises are so-called because of the appearance of their carapace which has a base color of yellow, tan, or brown with dark blotches. This gives the appearance of a leopard’s fur. The dark blotches fade over time and as such are present on the shell of juveniles.

Since these tortoises prefer arid zones, they are well suited to live in Arizona. They can tolerate high temperatures as well as relatively low temperatures. Temperatures above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, these tortoises are best housed outdoors. This is because they are huge.

The leopard tortoise is herbivorous and feeds almost exclusively on plants.

You can also supplement their diet with green leafy vegetables such as parsley, beet greens, collard greens, dandelions, mustard greens, rhubarb, and many others. Avoid lettuce if you can as these contain little to no nutrients.

Leopard tortoises can be adopted or acquired from reputable breeders.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many tortoise species can be found in Arizona?

There are actually just two tortoise species within Arizona. These are the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and the Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai). However, there are several other species kept as pets. Two common nonnative species you can find within Arizona include leopard tortoises and sulcatas.

How do you adopt an Arizonian tortoise?

Since it is illegal to trade in Arizonian tortoises, the only way to acquire one is through adoption. There are several captive tortoises that need a good home. Adoption comes with its challenges such as paperwork. To adopt an Arizonian tortoise, you can start here – Tortoise Adoption Program (https://www.azgfd.com/wildlife/nongamemanagement/tortoise/captivecare/).

Conclusion

Arizona is home to two tortoise species and these are the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and the Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai). Both tortoises are desert tortoises. The Mojave desert tortoise is classified as a threatened species. The Sonoran desert tortoise on the other hand is yet to be evaluated.

Both species are protected by law. As such the collection, and hunting of these two species is strictly illegal. If you wish to keep an Arizonian tortoise as a pet, you would need to adopt one.

If you have any inquiries or additional information, kindly leave a comment.

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