Red Rock Canyon Tortoise Habitat growth continues with new arrivals

Red Rock has two new residents: Red Rock Roxie and a yet-to-be-named female tortoise.

The nonprofit, Nevada-based Tortoise Group facilitated their adoption. Group member Sarah Mortimer brought them to Red Rock Canyon Tortoise Habitat on July 19, and Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist Kelsey Retich oversaw the transfer and received the certificates of adoption.

The tortoises arrived in oversized tub s from the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. After that, tortoise habitat monitors — volunteers who refer to themselves as tort wranglers — saw that the “rock stars” were secure in their new home. The two Mojave desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) will spend time in an isolated part of the habitat as they acclimate. Like other tortoises at the habitat, the newcomers had serial numbers tattooed on the lips of their shells.

It wasn’t just humans who were excited to greet the new arrivals. A longtime rock star named Lucie made multiple forays along the isolation fence to seek out any weak spots. Failing to breach it, she got as close as she could to the barrier to watch.

The unnamed newcomer is referred to as either Big Girl or Rosie. She weighed in at 8.5 pounds and measured roughly 14 inches long. She is suspected to be about 30 years old; tortoises like her can live 50-80 years. Roxie was slightly under 2 pounds and about 6 inches in length. She is estimated to be between 7 and 10 years old.

“It’ll be fun to watch her grow,” said Sue Kolar, who volunteers at the habitat as part of Friends of Red Rock Canyon. “All the others, when we got them, were adults.”

All of the tortoises, or torts, are pampered with “spa days” in which they’re placed in a tub of shallow water where they can soak. It also affords them the opportunity to drink. It’s another luxury, as tortoises can go a year without water.

The tort wranglers also are tasked with giving each animal its allotted amount of kibble, determined by weight. The kibble is from a list of food approved by the San Diego Zoo. Wranglers stay in the habitat for an hour or two after tending to the tortoises, answering questions from Red Rock Canyon visitors.

Husband and wife Roger and Sue Kolar have been tort wranglers since 2005. They said Friends of Red Rock and the BLM have been talking about expanding the number of animals for at least two years. The addition of the two rock stars was expected, but the volunteers only got one day’s notice that the transfer was happening. So, not all the crew got to be there in the welcoming party.

One thing people might not know about tortoises: “The first five years, their shell is soft,” Sue Kolar said. “So anything in the desert will eat them.”

Only 2 of every 100 hatchlings survive to maturity, according to statistics from Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa. The availability of food helps determine how big they get. Hugo, acquired in 2012, is 33 pounds — twice the size of any other rock star. Why?

“His owners fed him dog food,” Roger Kolar said.

The next-largest tortoise at the habitat weighs 16 pounds. When he came to Red Rock Canyon five years ago, Hugo was put on a vegetarian diet.

“He couldn’t be let back in the wild; he’d need a huge area just to support himself,” Roger Kolar said.

Besides feeding them twice a week, the Kolars said that they enjoy giving the tortoises their spa days.

“The females, especially, seem to enjoy it,” Sue Kolar said. “When you bring the Rubbermaid tubs out, they come right over.”

The two new rock stars arrive just a few months after the habitat saw its most notable tortoise, Maxine, die, presumably from natural causes. She was estimated to be 50-65 years old. Maxine was larger than the other females (18 inches from nose to tail and 16 pounds) and ruled the habitat.

Larger than life

Pat Williams, board treasurer for Friends of Red Rock Canyon and one of the 20 volunteers who care for the animals, said, “each of them has their own personality. … Maxine was larger than life in getting her way and making her needs known. She’d get into spats with the other females, especially the ones approaching her in size, and she’d try to tip them over.”

Tipped-over torts are vulnerable if in the wild and must rock themselves to regain their footing. Williams jokingly referred to Maxine as “she who must be obeyed.”

Tortoises hibernate in winter (called bromating). The volunteers had no idea Maxine’s health was failing; they knew only that she didn’t come out of bromation at the same time as the other tortoises. They could see her in the den, her bulk filling up the entry. Being the last one in meant she would be the first to emerge come spring.

“That was her M.O.,” Williams said. “’Ain’t nobody getting up until Maxine’s ready.’”

The volunteers last saw movement from Maxine (the habitat has motion-activated wildlife cameras) in February. By early April, they decided to open the den. The three tortoises behind Maxine hurried out and appeared eager to eat and drink, Williams said.

The habitat was established in 1995, with Maxine among the first inhabitants. Most of the tortoises at the Red Rock Canyon Tortoise Habitat are abandoned former pets, which cannot survive in the wild. From 2008-10, the rock stars were moved to the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center while a new habitat was reconstructed.

Rob Tuvell and his wife, Marilyn, have been tortoise habitat volunteers for about 10 years. A former professional artist, he often painted portraits of the tortoises; prints are on sale at the visitors center. He also drew cartoons featuring them for The Rock, the quarterly magazine put out by Friends of Red Rock Canyon. All the tortoises have personalities, Rob Tuvell said.

His last cartoon was done in memory of Maxine and showed her on a cloud with her fellow torts looking up to heaven at her, saying, “We miss you, Maxine.”

Contact Jan Hogan at or 702-387-2949.

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