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What Do Desert Tortoises Eat?

Desert tortoises were thought to be a single species since their discovery, but recently they were separated into two distinct species. They are the Agassiz’s desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), and Morafka’s desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai).

While the Agassiz’s tortoise is listed as “threatened” under the United States federal Endangered Species Act, the Morafka’s tortoise doesn’t have that label. However, there are people trying to grant the species the same protections.

It’s illegal to move or take these tortoises from their habitat. It’s also illegal to release captive desert tortoises into the wild because they could carry contagious and deadly respiratory infections to others.

Captive tortoises also would have a hard time finding food and water, as it’s generally brought to them and provided all the time. They would probably end up dying if they were released on their own.

If you have or are considering getting a captive bred desert tortoise or adopting one from someone, have a look at our guide on how to setup a desert tortoise habitat. Like this you are prepared and know what it takes to properly house one.

You may be curious to know what they eat while in the desert or what one would feed a pet desert tortoise. Believe it or not, in the wild there is a lot of food available to them, and they have a wide variety to choose from.

What Do Wild Desert Tortoises Eat?

Desert turtle taking a big bite of small leaves growing in the backyard taken by Brittany Wallin
Desert tortoise taking a big bite of small leaves growing in the backyard taken by Brittany Wallin.

Desert tortoises, both species are strict vegetarians. They eat a wide variety of grasses, cacti, flowers, leaves, and other plant matter. Generally, they know what they can eat and what to avoid.

Some of the cacti they eat include:

  • Hedgehog cactus. This spiny cactus is usually small growing, and very spiny. They produce bright flowers that the desert tortoise loves to eat. They can also eat the spiny cactus itself, spines and all, but not very often.
  • Pincushion cactus. As the name suggests, this cactus is small, round, or barrel-shaped and full of small spines.
  • Prickly pear cactus. This species of cactus is by far the most popular cactus for the desert tortoise to eat, and for gardeners to grow. They produce large, paddle-shaped pads with long spines but they are more spread out than most cacti.

The prickly pear also produces a thick, round fruit in the summer months. Both the pads and fruit contain a lot of water and nutrients vital for desert tortoises.

  • Saguaro cactus. These are the giant cacti that most people associate with the desert. Often the cacti are too tough and tall for the short desert tortoise to eat much, but when their fruits fall to the ground, you’ll probably find a few munching on the ripe fruits.

Desert Grasses Desert Tortoises Eat

Desert tortoise up close biting grass taken by David~O
Desert tortoise up close biting grass taken by David~O.

By far the largest part of their diet comes from desert grasses.

Desert grasses usually consist of 70 to 80 percent of a desert tortoise’s diet. They provide essential nutrients, fiber, protein, and often moisture in the arid environment.

Desert tortoises don’t often get a chance to drink as rainfall is so scarce. They have to rely on vegetation to get most of their water needs. This is especially the case when dew accumulates on grass and vegetation.

Some of the native grasses that desert tortoises feed on include:

  • Arizona cottontop
  • Bamboo muhly
  • Blue grama
  • Bush muhly
  • Curly mesquite
  • Deer grass
  • Fluffgrass
  • Needle grama
  • Sideoats grama
  • Slender grama
  • Three-awn
  • Vine mesquite

Small Shrubs Desert Tortoises Eat In The Wild

Desert Tortoise biting desert grass taken by J. Maughn
Desert Tortoise biting desert shrub taken by J. Maughn.

Shrubs survive the harsh desert environment by being succulent, having a hard, waxy coating to hold moisture in, or having other ways of being drought tolerant. These adaptations that help the plants go for long stretches without water help tortoises.

The leaves, though tough to digest, often provide a lot of moisture to tortoises. Here is a list of native shrubs desert tortoises will feed on in the wild:

  • Bladdermallow
  • Dalea
  • Desert rose mallow
  • Fairy duster
  • Flattop buckwheat
  • Hibiscus
  • Indian mallow
  • Rama del toro
  • Rock rose mallow
  • Globe mallow

Wildflowers Desert Tortoises In The Wild Will Eat

Tortoise biting the leaf of a wildflower taken by midwinter
Tortoise biting the leaf of a wildflower taken by midwinter.

Wildflowers are a big part of the desert tortoise’s diet.

When they are growing, tortoises will eat the flowers, leaves, and stems of these plants. When they produce seeds, they usually get passed through the tortoise’s digestive tract without being digested.

This makes the desert tortoise an essential seed disperser. Without these tortoises, many of these plants wouldn’t be able to spread to other areas in the desert.

The seeds come out whole through the tortoise’s poop, and will often grow when the rainy season comes.

Here is a list of native wildflowers that wild desert tortoises eat:

  • Arizona lupine
  • Birdfoot lotus
  • Desert Chicory
  • Desert lupine
  • Desert rock pea
  • Desert senna
  • Dogweed
  • Elegant lupine
  • Esteve’s pincushion
  • Evening primrose
  • Lizard tail
  • Locoweed
  • Penstemon
  • Owl’s clover
  • Showy four o’clock
  • Silver puffs
  • Spiderlings
  • Spurges
  • Strigose birdsfoot trefoil
  • Summer poppy
  • Trailing 4-o’clock
  • Wooly plantain

What Do Baby Desert Tortoises Eat?

Baby Desert Tortoise coming out of its shell taken by the U.S. Geological Survey
Baby Desert Tortoise coming out of its shell taken by the U.S. Geological Survey.

In the wild, baby desert tortoises eat the same thing as adults, only they tend to stick to softer, more succulent plants. They need to eat more often than adults because they are growing very fast for the first few years.

They also have a soft shell that takes time to harden. To toughen up their shells, baby desert tortoises need a lot of calcium and protein-rich foods.

When feeding pet hatchlings, their diet should contain plants and vegetables that are high in protein. They need about twice the protein as adults do, and half as much fiber until they reach three years of age.

Tortoises that don’t get enough protein and calcium in the developing years can develop stunted growth, thin shells, and shortened life expectancy.

Provide Plenty Of Food Options

Tortoise munching on a watermelon taken by Stephanie Young Merzel
Tortoise munching on a watermelon taken by Stephanie Young Merzel.

Desert tortoise hatchlings should be provided with plenty of grazing options such as clover, dichondra—a low-growing, soft ground cover, mallows, primroses, and hibiscus plants.

Provide plenty of dark, leafy greens such as kale, turnip, beet, collard greens, bok choy, and dandelion greens. Herbs such as parsley and cilantro are great options to add as well. You can feed them mustard greens as well, but only on occasion.

You should also provide chopped timothy hay as an option as well.

Stay away from lettuces as they provide little to zero nutrition. Don’t feed your tortoise iceberg lettuce—it’s basically crunchy water. Romaine, red or green leaf lettuces aren’t much better.

Be sure to feed your hatchlings and juvenile desert tortoises every day, until they are three to four years old. Then you can scale back the feedings to about once every other day.

What Can Adult Desert Tortoises Eat?

Large Desert Tortoise drinking water in its enclosure taken by Loren Javier
Large Desert Tortoise drinking water in its enclosure taken by Loren Javier.

Desert tortoises should be allowed to graze on natural grasses and native plants as they wish. Refer to the above list for some of the best options for them to graze on.

You can also provide grasses and weeds such as clover, dandelions, bermudagrass, and prickly pear cactus, (though only give them the fruits sparingly and during the summer as this is the natural growing season.)

If you want to limit their grazing to let the plants grow back, or while propagating them, put up a barrier your tortoise can’t see through. Keep it up until you’re ready to let your pet start nibbling it again.

What To Feed Your Desert Tortoise

Desert Tortoise mouth red from the cactus it was eating taken by midwinter
Desert Tortoise mouth red from the berry it was eating taken by midwinter.

Adult tortoises need a diet that is higher in fiber than babies and juveniles, contains a moderate amount of protein, and provides low-fat content with a lot of calcium. Provide calcium supplements if you feel your tortoise isn’t getting enough.

About 85% of its diet should consist of grasses and wild plants, and dark, leafy greens. The other 15% should include hard vegetables. You can feed your tortoise some fruit, but only as a rare treat about once a month.

Too much fruit in a desert tortoise’s diet will give it too much sugar and it can alter the digestive tract. Too much starch and sugar can change the kind of bacteria living in the hindgut.

Grasses and weeds your desert tortoise can eat include:

  • Alfalfa
  • Clover
  • Clover hay
  • Bermuda grass
  • Rye grass
  • Dandelions
  • Rice grass
  • Mallow
  • Sowthistle

Dark leafy greens to feed your desert tortoise include:

  • Collard greens
  • Escarole
  • Endive
  • Grape leaves
  • Turnip greens
  • Watercress
  • Dandelion leaves and flowers

The following greens should be fed sparingly because they either contain oxalates or are high in goitrogens. Oxalates block the absorption of calcium, and too much of these vegetables can cause metabolic bone disease.

Goitrogens can diminish thyroid activity. This blocks the absorption of iodine which can lead to an enlarged thyroid gland (goiter,) and can damage the liver and kidneys.

These greens should only be offered in small amounts, and include:

  • Cabbage
  • Chard
  • Kale
  • Parsley
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower

Vegetables You Can Feed Your Desert Tortoise

Vegetables should be offered to your tortoise when feeding them, but shouldn’t make up more than 15% of their diet. Safe vegetables to feed your tortoise include:

  • Acorn squash
  • Bell Peppers (green, red, yellow, orange)
  • Butternut squash
  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Potatoes (cooked, plain)
  • Pumpkin
  • Acorn squash
  • Turban squash
  • Spaghetti squash
  • Snow peas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Turnip

Flowers Your Desert Tortoise Can Eat

You can pluck flowers off and add to your tortoise’s mealtimes, or let them forage on their own. Here is a list of flowers they can munch on:

  • Hostas
  • Honeysuckle
  • Nasturtium
  • Forget-me-nots
  • Vetch
  • Violas
  • Violets
  • Lemon balm
  • Plantain
  • Geraniums
  • Hibiscus (flowers and leaves)
  • Pansies
  • Petunias
  • Pothos
  • Roses (petals and leaves)
  • Snail vine

Fruits You Can Feed Your Desert Tortoise

Fruits only need to be offered on rare occasions as a special treat. Only offer a small amount of fruit such as a single strawberry, a small slice of melon, or a slice of mango.

Be sure to remove any seeds and pits, especially from apples, pears, melons, and stone fruits such as apricots. Here are the fruits you can feed your desert tortoise as a rare treat:

  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Figs
  • Grapes
  • Mangos
  • Oranges (adult tortoises only)
  • Papayas
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Tomatoes (adult tortoises only)

Can Desert Tortoises Eat Broccoli?

Broccoli contains high amounts of goitrogens, as well as cauliflower, and mustard greens. You can feed your tortoise small amounts of broccoli on occasion, but it’s best if it was avoided. 

Can Desert Tortoises Eat Spinach?

Spinach contains a lot of nutrients, but it is also high in oxalic acid. This binds to calcium and prevents its absorption in the body. You can feed your tortoise spinach in small amounts, only on occasion. If your tortoise isn’t getting enough calcium though, avoid spinach completely as it will reduce the amount of calcium in your tortoise’s body.

Can Desert Tortoises Eat Carrots?

Carrots are perfectly safe for your desert tortoise. Just be sure hard vegetables like carrots are only providing about 15 to 20% of their diet. The rest should be grasses and leafy greens.

Can Desert Tortoises Eat Grapes?

Grapes and other fruits can become some of your tortoise’s favorite foods because some tend to get a sweet tooth. But you should only offer grapes and other fruits very sparingly. Desert tortoises can eat grapes but only offer two or three about once or twice a month. 

Foods That Should Be Avoided

Desert tortoise munching on some corn kernels taken by Stephanie Young Merzel
Desert tortoise munching on some corn kernels taken by Stephanie Young Merzel.

Many vegetables that we like to eat, which are quite popular on dinner tables across America, often have very little nutrition. These vegetables shouldn’t be fed to tortoises, and they include:

  • Corn—While corn is starting to be reexamined from a nutritional standpoint—there are reports stating that corn actually has some decent nutrition—it’s not great for desert tortoises. It contains a lot of starch and sugar, which isn’t good for desert tortoises, so avoid feeding your pet this summer barbeque favorite.
  • Cucumbers—Slices on your sandwich or in your salad may offer some desired crunch and cool taste, but they’re not great for desert tortoises. Cucumbers have a lot of water in them, and very little nutrition for desert tortoises, so they should be avoided. 
  • Radishes—These crunchy root veggies are great in salads, but they provide little nutrition to tortoises and should be avoided. They are also high in glucosinolates, which affect thyroid functions.
  • Zucchini—While zucchini is great for us, and is definitely a wonderful treat when baked into zucchini bread, this veggie has very little nutrition of desert tortoises. Avoid feeding your tortoise zucchini for this fact.
  • Celery—Celery is another vegetable that is better for humans than tortoises. While celery is a great way for us to get extra fiber and eat a calorie-negative food, it’s best to not share this veggie with your tortoise.
  • Lettuces—Iceberg, romaine, Boston, red, and green leaf lettuces should be avoided altogether. They offer little to no nutrition to your tortoise. It’s basically a stomach filler, much like drinking a large glass of water before you eat, so you consume less. 

Other Foods That Should Not Be Fed To Desert Tortoises

Though they may be extremely convenient, especially if you’re in a hurry, or having someone tend to your pet while you’re away, you should never feed them frozen, or canned vegetables.

Frozen vegetables can contain additives, or may have already been cooked before freezing. Most of the nutrition in frozen vegetables has been cooked out before being packaged.

The same goes for canned vegetables, except with the addition of high levels of salt. Sodium will dehydrate your desert tortoise and cause kidney issues. Canned vegetables also have no nutrition for your pet.

Never feed your tortoise dog, or cat food either. Anything that contains more than 15% protein can cause severe organ damage. When a tortoise gets a diet that contains too much protein, it can cause shell deformation and kidney failure.

A Quick Word On Commercial Tortoise Feed

Large tortoise near a mound of dirt and a ceramic taken by Stephanie Young Merzel
Large tortoise near a mound of dirt and a ceramic taken by Stephanie Young Merzel.

You can purchase tortoise food from your local pet supply store, but these mixes are the best for your pets. They contain a lot of fiber and fillers. Sure they can be great as a supplement, and fill in when you don’t have much time.

The majority of the time you should provide whole foods, as many native foods, and grazing opportunities as possible. You’ll have a healthier, longer-lived desert tortoise for it.

Wrapping It Up

Desert tortoises are herbivores that feed on many different plants. In the wild, they know what they can eat and what they need to avoid. In captivity, they rely on you to provide them with the best nutrition.

By following these lists above and providing them with plenty of native food sources you can keep your pet healthy and happy for decades to come.

If you enjoyed this article, you learned something, or want to leave a comment then drop it below. Also, go ahead and rate this article if you got this far.

We definitely appreciate you for coming by and spending a little time with us.

To learn more about this tortoise species, have a look at our Desert Tortoise facts guide.


Native Plants for Desert Tortoises

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