Why is there a study project? What’s it all about?

The Sonoran Desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) is a protected species found here in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. This species is under increasing pressure from climate change, human activities, and habitat degradation, which may affect their numbers. Through generous support from the Heritage Fund, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is studying the local tortoise population. The 3-year study will give us a better understanding of tortoise movements and activity patterns in this area, as well as factors affecting the population. These data will help the Conservancy and the City of Scottsdale make better management decisions to protect the tortoises and the Preserve ecosystem.

What exactly are you doing?

We are locating tortoises through field surveys. You may see some “blue-shirted” Conservancy volunteers and wildlife scientists off-trail. These stewards are working under special City and state permits and have been trained to safely handle tortoises. Once we have a tortoise, we process it by recording a thorough health assessment, add unique identifying marks to the shell, then temporarily attach a VHF radio telemetry transmitter so we can find it again. We will attach a GPS tracker to record its movements every hour. At the end of the study, all these electronics are safely removed. This is harmless to the tortoise and an important part of the study.

So how’s it going?

We have finished five initial surveys in the central and northern Preserve and have two remaining this season. We have processed seven tortoises and outfitted six of them with transmitters (one was a juvenile so too small for a transmitter). April/early May and monsoon season are generally when tortoises are most active. When it’s very hot and dry, tortoises are likely to be deep in shelters and less likely to be discovered.

What’s next?

We will soon affix GPS trackers to the transmittered tortoises, which will take a location every hour. When the weather conditions are right through the summer, we will continue to survey for more tortoises.

What if I see a tortoise while I’m out hiking or biking in the Preserve?

If you encounter a marked or unmarked tortoise while in the Preserve, do not pick it up or disturb it. Please record its location (using a GPS, in Maprika, using Solocator, or by whatever other means that will get us an exact location), take photos, and make any notes about its behavior, weather conditions, etc. Send the information to Tortoise@mcdowellsonoran.org.

How do I learn more or get involved?

If you are a steward, note your interest in Better Impact (select “Additional Info” under “My Profile,” then search for “Tortoise Telemetry.” If you are not a steward, please send a note to Tortoise@mcdowellsonoran.org.