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Keep your hands off those desert tortoises

Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.

The desert tortoise might be Nevada’s official state reptile, but if you’re lucky enough to spot one in a rare departure from its burrow, don’t touch. In fact, don’t bother it in any way, disturb its path or its burrow. The law forbids anything but watching it from a safe distance. That goes for dead tortoises, too.

They’re threatened.

By some rough estimates, however, there are as many as 150,000 tortoises kept as pets in the Las Vegas Valley.

But these technically aren’t pet tortoises. All desert tortoises, in captivity or not, belong to the people of Nevada. Those who legally possess a desert tortoise are considered custodians, rather than owners, acquiring them through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adoption program.

If it sounds unusual, that’s because it is. No other animal protected under the Endangered Species Act is so widely kept as a pet.

The largest reptile in the Southwest is itself unusual. Tortoises are long-lived, reaching 80 years or more, but are threatened for a reason. Sexual maturity is reached at about 15 years, and only about 2 percent of hatchlings reach adulthood. Females have been known to store sperm for up to 10 years before using it to produce a clutch of eggs.

Although in existence for millions of years, desert tortoise populations have decreased since the 1980s due to human interference, habitat loss from mining, livestock grazing and development.

Growing to a length of 15 inches with a high domed shell, the desert tortoise spends about 95 percent of its life in burrows to escape the heat or cold. They hibernate in winter burrows as deep as 30 feet.

In addition to being an herbivore, tortoises also ingest rocks and soil, probably to help in digestion. A large urinary bladder can store over forty percent of the tortoise’s body weight in water, urea, uric acid and nitrogenous wastes.

Adult tortoises can survive a year or more without access to water. But they have a tendency to dispel their stored water if handled or alarmed. Ironically, the defense mechanism can be life-threatening if they can’t replace the water. So again, don’t touch.

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