Plight of the Texas Tortoise

Compiled by Anita Peddicord
State & Federal Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitator

There are four tortoises native to North America. All are in the genus Gopherus and sometimes all are referred to as the Gopher Tortoises. Their scientific names along with their commonly used individual names and their home ranges are as follows:

1) Desert Tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, also known in some areas as the California Desert Tortoise ranges from southeastern California, southern Nevada, southwest Utah, western Arizona south to the western Mexican state of Sinaloa.

2) Gopher Tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, also known as the Florida Tortoise ranges from eastern Louisiana across the southern parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and throughout most of Florida.

3) Mexican Bolson Tortoise, Gopherus flavomarginatus, ranges mostly in north central Mexico and is the largest of the four.

4) Texas Tortoise, Gopherus berlandieri, sometimes called Berlandier's Tortoise (named after the French naturalist who did extensive studies in northern Mexico) is the smallest of the four and the one that is the focus of this article. Its home range is south Texas into the northeastern Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.

As with most tortoises, the Texas tortoise is a vegetarian. Their natural diet consists of mostly grasses, weeds, cactus pads and their fruit. They are a hibernating species during the winter. Actually, a more accurate term may be brumation instead of hibernation because they will become active during warm winter spells. They are not as apt to burrow as other tortoises. They usually scrape out a depression in the ground called a pallet that is at the base of a cactus or scrub. In the summer they lie in their pallet during the heat of the day and venture out to graze during the cooler hours. Most of the water they intake is from the plants they eat.

When two males meet in a territory, battles can lead to the death of one. Males try to turn each other over. If an over turned loser can not right himself, he can roast in the desert and die from hyperthermia (over heating). Males have long gular scutes that assist them in these battles.

Mature males can be sexed by their concave plastron (lower shell). Females are usually flat on the plastron. This concavity in the males allows them better access to a female during mating. The males are usually bigger than the females and can reach over 8 inches in length. Females can lay eggs from about April to September. Young tortoises take 3-5 years to mature.

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife the Texas Tortoise is state listed as a threatened species. Being a threatened species means it is illegal to have one in your possession unless you have certain permits issued by TP&W. Permits can be obtained by zoos for educational display, state permitted wildlife rehabilitators can have the Texas Tortoise listed on their permits for temporary rehabilitation purposes and also for permanent educational purposes. Other scientific permits may be issued by TP&W for the purpose of doing studies. At this time, the general public can not obtain permits to keep one as a pet.

Contributing to the threatened status of the Texas Tortoise is thought by some to be habitat loss, due partially to over grazing by cattle and over collection by eager people finding them near a road in their native range, who take them home for pets. This latter practice has caused the death of many countless tortoises. More often than not, when a traveler picks up a tortoise from a road, they take it back to their home which is so often to a climate that the tortoise is unaccustomed to. The Texas Tortoise needs a fairly dry climate to survive long term. When brought to more humid climates (such as the Gulf Coast), these tortoises quite often develop respiratory infections. If left untreated, these infections can be fatal. Tortoises are good at masking symptoms especially to untrained eyes. Sometimes they are sick a long time before their new "owner" (or more appropriately called kidnapper) sees a runny nose or runny eyes. Sometimes the "owner" never knows anything is wrong until the tortoise stops eating. Once ill, a tortoise must be seen by a vet experienced with tortoises to receive injectable antibiotics if they are to have a chance of recovery. If they remain in an inappropriate humid climate, respiratory infections can be a constantly recurring thing. There is also a form of bacteria causing respiratory infections, called Mycoplasma that can never be cured. After diagnosis, treatment can be done using certain antibiotics that will make a tortoise asymptomatic (showing no symptoms) for an indefinite period of time but there may be recurrences of illness and the tortoise is never completely "cured." They will always carry the Mycoplasma bacteria in their system. All respiratory infections are highly contagious between tortoises and turtles. Many people who thought they were doing a tortoise a favor by releasing it back into the wild has also caused the death of many native populations by releasing one with an infection that eventually kills the members in that area. This is a very serious problem for the Texas Tortoise and the harvesting of them from the wild and the unregulated re-releasing back into the wild must be stopped.

from south Texas or northern Mexico to here by someone. Many are found as escaped "pets" wandering around a subdivision of houses. The lucky ones find there way to a wildlife rehabilitator who eventually makes arrangements for them to be taken to a zoo or monitored preserve back in a drier climate. This is not always an easy task. Finding the right place with permits in the right climate that wants them can be a challenge. Only a few studies have been done on these tortoises over the years. Some of these were done by Texas universities. Thorough studies do tests for Mycoplasma, etc., and observe rescued tortoises in large outdoor compounds over time. This takes money and not many people care enough to pursue serious studies. These tortoises can not be released back into the wild, there are not many permitted places that will take them and the general public can not legally keep them. The state takes no responsibility towards providing compounds for these uprooted tortoises. You can see this is a big problem.

You may think that all a tortoise keeper has to do if they live in a humid climate is keep a tortoise indoors where the humidity could be controlled better. We at the Gulf Coast Turtle & Tortoise Society do NOT condone this practice. When keeping any tortoise indoors on a permanent basis you must look at two things:

First, is the problem with insufficient UVB rays, which leads to vitamin D deficiencies, which in turn leads to calcium deficiencies. Do not be fooled by those that tell you it is just as good keeping tortoises inside as outside if you have a "good" UVB or broad spectrum light. Some UVB bulbs are better than others but NONE are equal substitutes for the natural, direct, unfiltered sun. This snowball effect of insufficient UVB rays, vitamin D deficiency and calcium deficiency can cause soft and/or deformed shells and bones. Natural sunlight can not be filtered through a window or any kind of plastic. These glazing materials filter out a high percentage of the necessary UVB rays.

Second, these magnificent animals that can out live a human deserve a humane natural habitat to spend their long lives in. We believe keeping turtles and tortoises indoors, on a permanent basis, is cruel and unhealthy. This practice is equivalent to locking your child in his bedroom with no books, TV, radio or computer. What a boring life this would be for anyone. Living in confined quarters like a terrarium must be very boring to an animal that is naturally an explorer of his territory.

Keeping them outside in humid climates long term is not recommended either. Try to do what is best for the tortoise and find an appropriate facility in a drier climate. As stated before, because of their threatened status, doing this is not always an easy job. We are presently looking for other appropriate facilities for Texas Tortoises and will update this article with our success.

Copyright (c) 2004 Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
Permission is granted to copy for non-profit use with proper credit given. For any other use you must obtain permission.

Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
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Houston, TX 77073
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