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Desert Tortoise Research In The Red Cliff Desert Reserve On Wild About Utah

Ann McLuckie out in the field.

Hi, I’m Ann McLuckie and I work with the Division of Wildlife Resources working primarily on desert tortoises within the Red Cliff Desert Reserve. We’re going out in the field today and we’re going to do a transect. We’ve done transects since 1997 and our ultimate goal is to estimate population densities and those densities will allow us to look at how tortoises are doing and then if we get densities over time we can see are the populations increasing, decreasing, or are they stable. 

What we’ve learned is that we have had some pretty dramatic events, such as wildfires in 2005 and a severe drought in 2002, that have impacted tortoise populations. So we’ve seen tortoises fairly stable until those two events and since we’ve actually had fairly stable populations, but at lower densities.

Oh – here’s a fresh tortoise scat! So where there’s a fresh tortoise scat there’s got to be a tortoise close by. Oh, I think I see a tortoise. I think it’s in a burrow. I’m going to get the mirror. Oh yep, there it is and I think we can get it because it’s right by the edge. Let’s see I’m going to crawl into the burrow here. Let me get my gloves. Ok there, I think I’ve got it.

So when we get a tortoise we take three measurements, two width measurements and one length measurement called the carapace length. The carapace is the upper shell of the tortoise and it gives us an idea of how old the tortoise is. So I’ll measure the tortoise. Ok. Oh, this looks like an adult tortoise. Let see, let me sex it. The tortoise shell is made of the carapace, which is the upper shell, and then the plastron, which is the lower shell or the belly of the shell basically, and the gular is the bony plates that are under the chin. So males have a concave plastron and that allows it to mate with females so it can fit over the female shell and males also have a large gular.

We give each tortoise that we encounter a unique file number. On the edge of the carapace are what we call marginal scutes and those are just smaller sections of the shell and each of those marginal scutes is assigned a number. Whatever marginal scutes we file we add up those scutes and that gives that tortoise a unique number. So the number that this tortoise that we’re filing right now is going to have, let’s see, it’s going to have 3096, so that will be its number. Ok, I think that’s about it. And we have encountered tortoises that have been previously filed and we have a whole database of those tortoises so we can just go back to our database and figure out when that tortoise was first encountered, where it was first encountered, and get to know a little bit about that tortoise.