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Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) Fact Sheet: Summary

Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) Fact Sheet

Desert Tortoise

Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.


Taxonomy Physical Characteristics

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Reptilia

Order: Testudines - turtles, tortoises, terrapins

Family: Testudinidae - tortoises

Genus: Gopherus - gopher tortoises, North American tortoises

Species: Gopherus agassizii - desert tortoise

Body Weight
3.6-6.8 kg (8-15 lb)

Body Length
250-300 mm average; 400 mm maximum (9.8-11.8 in; 15.7 in)

Carapace (top) brown or gray without a pattern, but often may be brown or orange in the center, especially in young.

Distribution & Status Behavior & Ecology

North and west of the Colorado River in the Southwestern United States in the Mojave and western Sonoran Deserts in California, southern Nevada, northwestern Arizona, and southwestern Utah

Predominantly valleys and alluvial fans in saltbush scrub, creosote bush scrub, desert scrub, and tree yucca woodlands

IUCN Status
Vulnerable (1996 assessment) (Tortoise and Freshwater Specialist Group 1996)

CITES Status
Appendix II (UNEP 2019)

Other Designations
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Threatened

Walking, can climb inclines, good diggers.

Activity Cycle
Activity patterns seasonal--rainfall and temperature influence many activities.
Most active during early spring/summer and fall (before cold weather).
Hibernate during winter.

Social Groups
Several tortoises occupy the same winter den. Burrows used by one tortoise or a breeding pair.

Mostly grasses, leafy plants, and flowers.

Of adults/juveniles: coyotes, bobcats, ravens, badgers, skunks, kit foxes
Of eggs: gila montser, badgers, skunks, kit foxes, fire ants

Reproduction & Development Species Highlights

Sexual Maturity
From 15 years, or 190 mm carapace length, in the wild

Hatchlings emerge mid-August-October

Clutch Size
Typically 4-7, range: 1-14

Interclutch Interval
Depends on environmental conditions. Every 1, 2, or 3 years.

Incubation Period
In the wild: 90-120 days

Birth Size
Males: about 45 mm (1.8 in) carapace length
Females: 42 mm (1.7 in) carapace length

At least 35 years; may live 50-100 years

Feature Facts

  • Largest terrestrial turtle in the United States
  • Claws on front limbs for digging burrows and nests
  • After foraging, often assume a limp, spread-eagle posture with limbs and neck extended
  • Not territorial
  • Communicate with head-bobbing displays, vocalizations, and odors
  • Mortality in wild for juveniles more than 90%
  • Diverse conservation challenges (hit by cars, competition with livestock, drought, human collection and removal); many conservation groups working to help the desert tortoise's recovery, including San Diego Zoo Global

About This Fact Sheet

© 2010 San Diego Zoo Global


How to cite: Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) Fact Sheet. c2010. San Diego (CA): San Diego Zoo Global; [accessed YYYY Mmm dd]. deserttortoise
(note: replace YYYY Mmm dd with date accessed, e.g., 2015 Sep 10)


Disclaimer: Although San Diego Zoo Global makes every attempt to provide accurate information, some of the facts provided may become outdated or replaced by new research findings. Questions and comments may be addressed to

Release & Recovery

Learn how research conducted by San Diego Zoo Global and its partners has shaped desert tortoise conservation programs.

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