In Our Region
Members of this family of turtles are first recognized in Eocene-age rocks of western North America. They may have evolved in Asia, but eventually spread to North and South America. Most other modern families of turtles evolved much earlier, in Cretaceous times. The genus Gopherus still has living members.
There is evidence, however, that during the Pleistocene and earlier epochs, these tortoises were found in cooler, less extreme climates and that they did not originally evolve in desert habitats.
Selective herbivores, tortoises eat flowers, grasses, cacti, fruits and other plant parts. Often they eat enough during the spring annual bloom after rains come to sustain themselves through dormancy periods. Large and slow-moving, tortoises have little means for defense and are vulnerable to predators despite their large size.
These animals hold up to 40% of the water in their bodies in their bladder, and when disturbed, may discharge the contents of the bladder as a last ditch defense mechanism. This is one of the reasons why it is never advisable to disturb or touch tortoises. After losing that much water, the animal may be unable to recover and may die due to dehydration.
Sexual maturity is not reached till after 15 -20 years of age. Predators of Gopherus tortoises and tortoise eggs include coyotes, bobcats, foxes, snakes, hawks and eagles.
Several species of Gopherus tortoise are considered endangered or threatened; baby hatchlings have a very high mortality rate and in most areas their numbers are greatly reduced. Their habitats also have become reduced through human activities, such as grazing, housing developments, and off-road vehicle use.
People have long thought that tortoise meat made good eating. There is early historical evidence that they were eaten by humans, and archaeologists have recovered charred tortoise bone fossils. Whether or not this has hastened the decline of the tortoise populations, such as the extinct species, is not known.
Text: Margaret Dykens and Lynett Gillette