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Tortoises In California

There aren’t many tortoises in California that are endemic to the state. In fact, only one tortoise is native to California and that is the desert tortoise. However, there are a number of other tortoises found in California. These are generally pet tortoises and even captive-bred tortoises.

There are however many different turtles in california that are native to the state.

The climate of California makes it an ideal place to keep tortoises, especially Mediterranean species (& breeds). Tortoises that require high temperatures to thrive do very well in California.

First, we will look at California’s native tortoise known as the Mojave Desert tortoise also known as the Californian desert tortoise or simply as the desert tortoise.

Tortoise Species Native to California

There is just one tortoise species native to California and that is the desert tortoise. Desert tortoises found in California are also referred to as Californian desert tortoises. In California, it is illegal to purchase, sell, or breed captive specimens. However, it is perfectly legal to adopt a desert tortoise. Adoption is handled by the California Turtle & Tortoise Club.

1. Californian Desert Tortoise

California Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) huddled in a corner by L Allen Brewer
California Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) huddled in a corner by L Allen Brewer
  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Gopherus agassizii
  • Other Common Names: Desert Tortoise, Mojave Desert tortoise
  • Adult Size: 6 to 14 inches
  • Lifespan: 60 to 80 years
  • Average Price Range: $200 to $300
  • Where to buy: Best adopted

Desert tortoises spend most of their days in burrows. Here they can escape the hot desert sun, seek out humidity, and rest.

The location of this tortoise determines its habitat. Within its range in California, Utah, and Nevada, these tortoises live in valleys, with over 150 tortoises per square kilometer (0.40 sq miles). The Mojave desert where Californian desert tortoises live is defined by Galleta grass, white bursage, and creosote bush.

Desert tortoises can reach lengths of 10 to 14 inches with an average length of 12 inches. These chelonians can also reach eighths of 6 inches. Males are generally larger than females with larger tails and longer gular horns.

The collaboration of this chelonian is dark brown to tan. An identifying feature is the long claws which they use exclusively for burrowing and digging. As already mentioned, these chelonians spend a lot of time underground in burrows. The species big out these burrows themselves.

Gopherus agassizii is an herbivore and as such feeds exclusively on plants. The exact plants the species feeds on depend on what’s available in its habitat. They are known to eat bark, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, vines, grasses, succulents, and many more. During the rainy seasons, these chelonians drink a lot.

Very few animals can successfully prey on an adult desert tortoise. Only Puma concolor (mountain lions) are known to successfully crack the shells of the Gopherus agassizii. However, juveniles, hatchlings, and eggs are preyed on by foxes, Gila monsters, roadrunners, ravens, golden eagles, badgers, bobcats, and feral dogs.

The species live long lives although this is dependent on whether or not the individual reaches the age of 20. Only one specimen out of every 15 clutches actually reaches the age of 20. However, once the individual reaches the age of 20, it is likely to live until 50 to 80 years.

Caring for a desert tortoise can be challenging. These turtles require spacious outdoor housing which provides plenty of room to move about and browse. The pen must have a shelter that provides shade from the sun and somewhere they can rest during the night. It is essential that there are no poisonous plants within the enclosure. See our tortoise safe plants list for more than 100 safe plants.

Feeding desert tortoises can be tricky. This is because they will accept almost every food offered to them. Having the following plants within the enclosure will provide these tortoises with excellent food sources – nasturtium, hibiscus flowers, rose petals, nutgrass, chickweed, cheese mallow, grape leaves, mulberry tree leaves, nopales, alfalfa, dandelions, grass, weeds, wildflowers, and native Californian grasses.

These turtles also accept dark greens such as mustard greens, cilantro, parsley, turnip greens, kale, collards, and others. These are human food and should be offered only as a supplement to weeds and grasses. Otherwise, they should only be a short-term solution. Avoid offering them celery.

Foods to avoid include fruits (which can be offered on rare occasions), proteins, and animal fats. Examples of proteins to avoid include cat food, dog food, and any food with more than 15 percent protein content. Also, avoid foods high in sodium such as canned vegetables. Avoid feeding them dairy and bread.

If you wish to acquire a desert tortoise, I recommend adopting one. Visit the California Turtle & Tortoise Club website for more information (https://www.tortoise.org/cttc/adoption.html).

Tortoise Pet Ideal For California

The warm climate of California makes it an ideal place to keep most tortoises. Here are some tortoise species you are likely to find in California as pets. If you wish to house a pet tortoise, I suggest any of the following.

2. Sulcata Tortoise

Giant Sulcata Tortoise also known as the African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) in grass under a tree
Giant Sulcata Tortoise also known as the African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) in grass under a tree

The Sulcata is one of the largest tortoises in the world. They may be huge but they are still quite easy to care for. Regardless, you need to be aware of their long lifespans and particular needs.

Since these tortoises are huge they need large enclosures. In fact, the Sulcata is the third largest tortoise in the world. And the largest tortoise native to the African mainland.

The Sulcata can be found along the southern edge of the Sahara desert. As you can see, these tortoises live among the driest and hottest regions of the world. Their natural habitats can go years without rain; the Sulcata tortoise is perfectly adapted to live in such dry environments.

Their skin in particular loses very little fluid to perspiration. Additionally, the skin also absorbs moisture easily. The Sulcata tortoises are also excellent burrowers. They spend the hottest parts of their day in these borrows.

The Sulcata is one of the most popular tortoises in North America. They thrive in places with little rainfall and tolerate low temperatures quite well. These characteristics make the sulcata tortoise excellent for the Californian climate.

Sulcata needs large enclosures that they roam and graze in. Only bring them inside when temperatures are low or the weather is damp.

Geochelone sulcata are herbivorous. In the wild, these chelonians feed mostly on succulent plants which provide them with both water and nourishment. In captivity, they accept all sorts of plants. Weeds, grass, shrubs, and hay should make up about 90% of their diet. Ensure that the grass feed the turtles are herbicide-free.

Grass to feed these tortoises includes cheatgrass, timothy grass, orchard grass, oat hay, and meadow grass. They also accept edible flowers such as rose petals, hibiscus, geraniums, and nasturtiums.

The Sulcata also accepts dark greens and vegetables. Some excellent greens to feed them include collard greens, beet greens, kale, mustard, turnip greens, dandelion, rhubarb, spinach, and parsley.

Fruits can be offered but only as a treat (once a month).

If you wish to acquire a Sulcata, I recommend finding one at a herp pet store near you. You can also acquire one from online breeders.

2. Greek Tortoise

Greek Tortoise (Testudo graeca) by Jim the Photographer
Greek Tortoise (Testudo graeca) by Jim the Photographer
  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Testudo graeca
  • Other Common Names: spur-thighed tortoise
  • Adult Size: 10 inches
  • Lifespan: 100 years years
  • Average Price Range: $200 to $300

The Greek tortoise is a Mediterranean tortoise and as such is perfectly suited for California. These chelonians are endemic to northern Africa, southern Europe, and southwest Asia. It is called the Greek tortoise because this tortoise is native to Greece.

The greek tortoise is moderately sized and can grow to lengths of 10 inches. It is manageable and quite easy to care for. The shell is yellow to tan with dark areas on each scute.

There are many subspecies (at least 20) of the greek tortoise. These subspecies are generally classified by their geographic range. Some popular subspecies include the ibera Greek tortoise and the golden greek tortoise.

While these Greek tortoises can be kept indoors, I advise that you keep them outdoors. A large outdoor enclosure is recommended. This ensures that the tortoise has sufficient room to exercise and roam.

As far as the temperatures are above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, you can allow the tortoise outside. The outdoor enclosure needs to have minimum dimensions of 6 ft by 6 ft. The wall needs to be about 1½ ft high. This should prevent them from escaping.

As with other tortoises, weeds, grasses, hay, and edible flowers should make up to 90% of their diet. Offer the chelonian cheatgrass, timothy grass, Bermuda grass, orchard grass, oat hay, meadow grass, rose petals, hibiscus, geraniums, and nasturtiums.

In addition to this, they also accept endive, lettuce, romaine, bok choy, and other leafy greens.

These chelonians can either be adopted or bought from breeders. When acquiring one from a breeder, make sure the breeder is reputable.

3. Hermann’s Tortoise

Hermanns tortoise (Testudo hermanni) in grass
Hermanns tortoise (Testudo hermanni) in grass
  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Testudo hermanni
  • Adult Size: 6 to 8 inches
  • Lifespan: 75 years years
  • Average Price Range: $200 to $500
  • Where to buy: xyzreptiles.com

The Hermann’s tortoise is another Mediterranean tortoise and as with all Mediterranean tortoises, California is an excellent locale for them. The weather is amazing, and they don’t mind the lack of rain. Of course, it is important not to release them into the wild.

The geographic range ranges from the northern coast of the mediterranean sea all the way to southern Spain. However, most of these tortoises can be found on the Italian peninsula. They prefer dry grasslands and scrub forests.

These chelonians are moderately sized with lengths of 6 to 8 inches. There are two subspecies of this tortoise and this determines the coloration. The eastern Hermann’s tortoises are dull in color while the western Hermann’s tortoises are colorful.

If you wish to keep a specimen, you need a spacious backyard and climate which is similar to the Mediterranean region. The only time, you need to bring the chelonian indoors is when temperatures are too low (when ambient temperatures fall below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a temperature gradient of 60 degrees to 85 degrees during the day and 40 degrees to 75 degrees at night is advisable).

Hermann tortoises are herbivores and require a diet similar to that of the greek tortoise. As such, weeds, grasses, hay, and edible flowers should make up to 90% of their diet. Offer the tortoise cheatgrass, timothy grass, Bermuda grass, orchard grass, oat hay, meadow grass, rose petals, hibiscus, geraniums, and nasturtiums.

They also accept endive, lettuce, romaine, bok choy, and other leafy greens.

As with any and all tortoises, it is best to acquire specimens from reputable breeders.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you adopt a Californian desert turtle?

The adoption process can be started by getting in touch with the California Turtle & Tortoise Club. this can be done online. You require a license to keep a desert tortoise in California. This is because these tortoises are endangered. Relevant links include California Turtle & Tortoise Club, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and Desert Tortoise Application (PDF Form).

What other tortoises should I considered as pets if I live in California?

California is a large place with a variety of climates, however, most regions of California (especially southern California) are relatively warm and dry. This climate makes California ideal for a wide variety of Mediterranean tortoises and Subsaharan tortoises. Great examples of Mediterranean tortoises include the greek tortoise and Hermann’s tortoise. The sulcata tortoise is an excellent example of a Subsaharan tortoise.

Conclusion

There aren’t many tortoises to be found in California. There is only one tortoise species endemic to California and that species is endangered. As such, they are rare to come across. The species native to California is  Gopherus agassizii, commonly known as the desert tortoise. This species can reach lengths of 6 to 14 inches and live to 80 years.

Although California has just a single tortoise species, there are other species to be found on the pet market scene. If you wish to get a pet tortoise in California, I recommend a tortoise that is endemic to arid zones, or the mediterranean region. The climate in California is perfect for these species.

If you have any questions or suggestions, kindly leave a comment.

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