If you hike in Arizona, you hear stories about wildlife encounters. I’ve yearned to observe a desert tortoise in the wild, while I’ve wanted to avoid seeing a rattlesnake anywhere. Desert tortoises spend most of their lives in a shelter, often underground. Living underground helps them maintain a constant body temperature. Desert tortoises are ectothermic. That means they have little internal control of their body temperature; they rely on finding spaces that will help them regulate their temperature.
Desert tortoises come out of their shelters to mate, bask in the sun and eat. But they don’t come out often, as they can get by with eating just during the monsoon season. They can get most of their liquid needs from the food they eat. Seeing one in the desert is very unusual.
In early October, I was showing some family from Indiana one of my favorite hiking loops in the White Tank Mountains. We were hiking the Mesquite Trail to Ford Canyon Trail to Willow. They were new to desert hiking, but had plenty of water and good shoes. So we were able to admire the cactus and note how dried out the brittlebush are. We also spotted a few saguaro skeletons and started to understand how the “trees of the desert” retain their columnar structure.
Then it happened! We saw a desert tortoise ambling along the trail toward us. We quickly took a few pictures then stepped off the trail (after looking for snakes) to let it get by.
The week before I had seen a desert tortoise when hiking in the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve from the Desert Hills Trailhead. The tortoise was amazing and drew a crowd of people. One mountain biker wanted to pick it up and move it off the trail, but we urged him to leave the tortoise alone. Leaving the tortoise alone was ideal because one defense a tortoise has is to release the contents of its bladder. If the tortoise had been picked up, the mountain biker would have gotten very dirty, and the tortoise would have lost a source of its water. According to Arizona Game and Fish*, desert tortoises can hold water in their bladder which enables them to go without drinking water for up to a year. But if that water had been released, the tortoise could have been in grave danger.
Observing wildlife in the desert is always exciting. People on the trails must remember that the desert is home to wildlife and respect them.