Nevada’s state reptile is the desert tortoise, a threatened species that is protected under the US Endangered Species Act. Visitors to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area pass a “watch for turtles” sign on the loop road, just after the Sandstone Quarry turnout. This sign is meant for the protection of the desert tortoise, an effort that has been put into effect by numerous organizations since the early 1980’s.
The desert tortoise population has declined dramatically due to urban development over its native habitat, the Mojave Desert. According to the Desert Conservation Program, it has also been a victim of poaching, collecting, and road accidents. As a threatened species, the public is asked to report every desert tortoise seen in urban environments and to stay away from any tortoise seen in the wild.
Although it is the largest reptile in the southwest (it can grow to a length of 14 inches, according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the desert tortoise has many natural predators, including ravens, Gila monsters, kit foxes, badgers, roadrunners, and coyotes. For protection, they spend most of their lives in underground burrows (95% of it, according to the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association). The burrows also help them hide away from the summer heat and winter cold. The desert tortoise mostly comes out to eat and look for a mate in spring and fall. Thus, it can survive in the wild between 60-80 years!
During the winter months, the desert tortoise goes through a period of brumation, a process similar to hibernation in mammals. It can store water in its bladder which helps it from losing moisture. A tortoise can last a long time without actually drinking water. However, as a defense mechanism when frightened, it tends to urinate and must quickly get to a source of water once the danger is passed before it dehydrates. Its diet consists of various desert plants, including grasses, flowers and cacti.
In Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the public may visit Mojave Max, a 12-inch-long, 23-year-old desert tortoise that lives in the park (although he only shows itself about five percent of the time). A tradition begun in the year 2000 to guess the time when Mojave Max peeks out of its burrow for the first time each spring (generally when the days get longer and temperatures rise). This fun contest helps educate the public about the threatened species. Remember: it is illegal to pick up, handle or remove a desert tortoise in the wild.