12 Turtles and Tortoises in The Desert (with Pictures)

Turtles and tortoises also live in the desert. They always go to extreme lengths to survive here.

Some of these species are even native to the Southwestern US deserts. Many of them may only be spotted in the summer as they may even be inactive for about half a year.

Adaptations of turtles and tortoises to desert climates

Living in the desert requires feeding, breeding, and activity-specific adaptations. They allow turtles to live and thrive, sometimes even as long as humans, in some of the most difficult conditions in the world.

Active in the rainy season

Activity levels peak in the warmer months when it rains. This is when many turtles and tortoises come out for water and even to swim.

Rain also triggers new plant growth in the desert, a good time for turtles to feed on fresh plants and grasses.

Foraging in cool temperature

Some types of desert tortoises such as The Egyptian Tortoise have adapted to only coming out for plants when the weather is cool. They remain in their burrows otherwise.

Winter brumation

Brumation and even hibernation are a reality for many species of the desert. Hibernation of up to 5 months is often specific to the species of turtles and tortoises in the desert.

This typically takes place in burrows. One or multiple burrows may be used at this time of no activity. Many go down as far as 15 inches below the surface to escape the cool weather.

Storing water in the bladder

Another rare adaptation includes storing water in the body. Turtles in the desert can go on for a long time without food, sometimes even months.

This is why they don’t need a constant water supply as species in other areas.

Not urinating

The capacity to store water for a long time is also tied to the capacity to not urinate for a long time.

Some of the species of the desert are adapted to living with very high levels of uric acid just as a means of surviving some of the most inhospitable areas of the world.

Eating plants during the rainy season

Food choices are scarce in the desert. Turtles here may only eat occasionally, typically during or soon after the rainy season.

From flowering desert plants to succulents and even cacti, tortoises in the desert survive on very little food.

On occasion, some species may even eat carrion. While they are slow, floods of the rainy season might bring carrion to them.

Turning nocturnal

Some types of turtles can turn from diurnal to nocturnal and back within a year. These changes are prompted by the rise in temperature.

The species that do this prefer to become inactive during the day for the hottest months of the year to avoid coming out in the full sun.

Some exceptions can apply when it rains and when the sky gets cloudy.

Eating carrion

Most turtles and tortoises in the desert are herbivorous. However, flash floods during the rainy season make many animal victims.

Fossil streams become active streams and carry the carrion to the turtles. While rare, some species of turtles in the desert may not overlook carrion during the rainy season.

Turtles and Tortoises in The Desert

Some of the following species are common while others only survive in their low thousands in the deserts of the world.

1. Mojave Desert Tortoise

Mojave Desert Tortoise

Mojave Desert Tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) are some of the longest-living turtles in the deserts of the Southwestern US.

A lifespan of up to 80 years is what these tortoises are known for, apart from living in some of the most difficult conditions in the desert.

Large and green-tan or brown, this is a species that is inactive for most months.

It spends its time hiding from the harsh weather in the ground but becomes highly active in the rainy season.

It also survives The Mojave Desert by entering brumation during the winter.

Away from sight, they spend their time in burrows. These burrows can look very different from one case to another and they may even hide among rocks to seek shelter against extreme temperatures.

Both temperatures that are too hot or too cold are detrimental to its health. Body temperature regulation becomes easier in burrows, where the species is known to rest in.

Turtles of the species may also remain inside burrows to stay out of sight of common predators.

A single burrow is not specific to these turtles which may use several burrows which they move throughout the year.

It’s also not rare for them to live in communal burrows with other species of the desert such as rodents.

2. Sonoran Desert Tortoise

Sonoran Desert Tortoise

Native to The Sonoran Desert and to areas of Eastern California, Sonoran Desert Tortoises (Gopherus morafkai) prefer rocky valleys in the desert.

Also present in Arizona, these types of tortoises go to extreme lengths to live in areas as unhospitable as the desert.

The capacity to go on for a long time without eating helps this species survive the deserts of The Southwestern United States.

Furthermore, this is a species that shows an extreme tendency when it comes to urination.

Water is scarce in the desert and may only be available in the valleys in the rainy season.

This is why these turtles may not even urinate for months. Of course, this causes high acidity in their bladders but they’re perfectly adapted to live with this acidity of the urine.

Not as long-living as The Mojave Desert Tortoise, Sonoran Desert Tortoises are known to live around 30 years.

They survive on different types of plants and even on some local species of cacti.

While they may retreat into burrows for longer periods of inactivity, these turtles may also seek out a short-term shelter in the shade of various bushes.

3. Sonoran Mud Turtle

Sonoran Mud Turtle

Some types of turtles have evolved from living in desert climates in areas around major rivers.

This is also the case of The Sonoran Mud Turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense), a species that used to live along The Colorado River and which is now present in its overflow canals.

Its range is much wider, spreading through the deserts of Southwestern US where it is believed to be mostly inactive during the year.

Mostly active in the summer, this is a dark-mottled species that is known to come out for food when it rains. Snails and tadpoles are among its common foods.

The species can be found along canals and streams, as well as in ponds as it favors slow-moving water.

Much of their habits also remain unknown as this species has more aquatic habits than others.

It even spends time in water when it rains but its capacity to do so and the type of mud it can survive in also depend on its area of the desert.

The lifespan of the species is also variable and it’s believed it can live up to 35 years in the wilderness.

Breeding is specific to April and May when the females also lay eggs.

Slow maturing rates are specific to these turtles which may take as much as 9 years to begin breeding.

4. Sonoran Box Turtle

Sonoran Box Turtle

Also native to The Sonoran Desert, this species of turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola) is named after its boxy-shaped shell.

They always occur in the same areas of the desert as they prefer familiar grounds. Occasional new turtles are seen in the Southwestern US territories with plenty of yuca.

One of their significant limitations includes low tolerance for decreased temperatures, being one of the turtles to go into hibernation the earliest.

They can hibernate for at least 5 months and be out of sight during this period.

Burrowing into the ground, they spend the winter 10-15 inches below the surface, often in the burrows of other species or their burrows.

Known for their brown and faded brown appearance, these turtles are also some of the species that eat anything from grasses to insects and small animals.

All types of small animals live in the deserts with them. Open areas are preferred as these offer a clear sight of their food options.

Much of their feeding and breeding habits are solely dependent on the drought period in the desert,

5. Goode’s Thornscrub Tortoise

Goode’s Thornscrub Tortoise

Like many species, Goode’s Thornscrub Tortoises (Gopherus evgoodei) are active in the rainy season. Spotted from June to early November, these turtles come out when it rains.

The rain of The Sonoran Desert prompts new plant growth, grasses, and the emergence of various bugs desert turtles feed on.

This is also a species that prefers rocky areas of the desert within its valleys and on its slopes.

Rocky areas offer a degree of protection and a degree of shade during the hottest days of the year.

Burrowing also takes place in these areas.

Unlike many other species, Goode’s Thornscrub Tortoises are primarily interested in burrowing under rocks, where they are more protected than other species of turtles.

Known for their bright brown nuances, these turtles also prefer these areas as they have some types of shrubs and plants to live under the shade of.

At the moment, poaching is one of the risks this species faces. Being a species that’s just been discovered for a few years, interest in it is high.

6. Bolson Tortoise

Bolson Tortoise

Bolson Tortoises (Gopherus flavomarginatus) are the largest tortoises in North America. Growing to 18 inches, these declining types of tortoises are locally known as The Yellow-margined Tortoises.

This rare species is only found in The Chihuahuan Desert, within Bolson de Mapini, a unique type of habitat in terms of water management.

All streams in the area drain towards the center of the area, into swamps or lakes, and these form the habitat of The Bolson Tortoise.

Within this habitat of just 200 square miles, Bolson Tortoises live in a semi-desert climate feeding on plants.

Shrubs and plants here also offer them a shaded spot for their burrows.

Bolson Tortoises live most of their lives in these burrows, to escape the high heat.

In turn, they only come out of the burrows when they overheat but prefer to locate them in shaded areas to avoid overheating.

Almost all days and months are spent in these burrows.

Food is among the few reasons for these tortoises to come out of the burrows. They feed on different types of plants, cacti, succulents, and even small fruit.

Their burrows typically only house these tortoises as the species doesn’t share its burrows similarly to other species of the desert.

They try to hide from potential predators all of their lives.

Not all types of predators can deal with their hard shells and this is why these turtles are mostly vulnerable in their early days.

However, there are still jaguars and other types of predators that may break through their hard shells.

7. Egyptian Tortoise

Egyptian Tortoise

The Egyptian Tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) is one of the rarest types of desert tortoise in the world. Once a species of Egypt and Israel, this tortoise is believed to be extinct from most of its native habitats.

Apart from zoos around the world, it may only be found in Libya.

The tortoise uses unique adaptations to survive the hottest areas of Egypt and Israel’s deserts, all part of its former territories.

Its capacity to thermoregulate is based on having the ability to cool its body temperature quickly.

These tortoises are also known to come out in the morning or late in the evening when temperatures typically go down in the desert.

Springtime marks the breeding period and the only time these tortoises come out of their burrows to breed.

Males begin breeding by making distinct breeding calls to which the females respond.

Females may also not respond to the call of each male.

The female also lays eggs in the ground, as a means of protecting them from the high heat. They do so in the burrows of other species.

Some of the reasons these turtles may be wandering around include males chasing females for breeding or both males and females looking for rarer food sources in the desert.

They may not have many plants left in the desert given they share them with other species.

Humans hunting these turtles is also believed to be the most important risk associated with the potential demise of the species.

8. Sulcata Tortoise

Sulcata Tortoise

One of the largest tortoises in the world, Sulcata Tortoises (Centrochelys sulcata) live in The Saharan Desert and Sahel.

They live in some of the most difficult conditions in the world, both in the desert and near the desert.

Temporary ponds and streams offer their ideal habitat.

They survive The Sahara Desert by burrowing deep, considerably deeper than other species. It burrows tens of feet underground.

Sulcata Tortoises are also endangered, despite living deep in the ground as they’re hunted and due to lower food availability.

They may eat plants, algae, grasses, and even hay in captivity. In the rainy season, they eat new plants and grasses.

Some dietary exceptions are common during the rainy season. Washed-up carcasses in the temporary streams of the desert offer them alternative food.

The species is found in zoos across the world and it also makes a good tortoise pet if the owner doesn’t handle it.

While it doesn’t bite and it doesn’t become aggressive, Sulcata Tortoises are afraid of being handled.

In captivity, these tortoises should not be fed in high amounts or anything else apart from plants as they tend to put on too much weight which is detrimental to their health.

9. Serrated Tortoise

Serrated Tortoise

A rare type of striped tortoise, The Serrated Tortoise (Psammobates oculifer) lives in The Kalahari Desert.

Bright brown or tan stripes are seen across its carapace in the form of multi-directional rays.

A species that faces hunting and illegal trade, the Serrated Tortoise lives across multiple habitats between South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana.

Most herbivorous, they eat a small number of plants specific to The Kalahari or deserts, in general.

Scrub, bushes, and grasses in the desert are its most likely food sources.

This type of tortoise is only found in fossil rivers of The Kalahari.

These types of rivers are temporary, only briefly specific to the periods of heavy rainfall, a rare occurrence in the desert.

While they dry up quickly as water sinks into the sand, these temporary rivers still produce sufficient low-ground moisture and vegetation for the tortoises to live on.

With the capacity to retain moisture for a long period, these tortoises can live long periods without up until the next rainy season.

The Kalahari only gets reduced precipitation and the permanent vegetation here is highly drought-tolerant.

10. Aquatic Box Turtle

Aquatic Box Turtle

Living in the desert spring of Northern Mexico, Aquatic Box Turtles (Terrapene coahuila) are some of the darker turtles of the desert, with an almost all-black appearance.

Found in a widespread habitat in Mexico’s Coahuila, these types of turtles are primarily aquatic and their color may vary when they are on land as opposed to in-water.

Turtles of the species are among those that live in very small numbers and are now protected.

By some estimates, there are only 2,000 Aquatic Box Turtles left in the wilderness.

They survive in pockets of water such as desert springs in Northern Mexico where they feed mostly on aquatic plants or on the plants that grow near the water.

Humans are also believed to be a contributing factor to their lesser numbers as they are collected to be bred in captivity.

Since an adult Aquatic Box Turtle only measures up to 6 inches, these turtles may be collected easily.

This species may still be spotted in and around water in the evening or the cooler periods of the year.

Unlike many other turtles, they even submerge and manage to stay underwater for longer periods.

11. Arizona Mud Turtle

Arizona Mud Turtle

Arizona and Sonora deserts are home to The Arizona Mud Turtle (Kinosternon stejnegeri).

Unlike The Aquatic Box Turtle, this is a species that prefers temporary bodies of water that are free of predators.

This species is rarely seen due to its remote desert living and due to its nocturnal activity habits.

Only active at night in the warmest periods of the year, the turtle prefers to avoid the high daytime heat and desiccation.

The periods at the beginning and the end of its active season are also periods when the turtle is diurnal as the temperatures are still not that high.

Furthermore, these turtles are also known for hibernating for months in the winter.

Hibernation spots are typically underground locations such as burrows close to temporary water bodies in the rainy season.

A combination of plants and animals make up the bulk of its diet. From the tadpoles appearing in the temporary water bodies it lives into carrion washed away by heavy rainfall, it can even feed opportunistically.

In the wilderness, Arizona Mud Turtles live up to 10 years.

12. Karoo Padloper

Chersobius boulengeri
Karoo Padloper. Image by Paul Bester via inaturalist

Named after the semi-desert Nana Karoo region of South Africa, Karoo Padlopers (Chersobius boulengeri) is one of the brown or red-brown species of the world.

This species is found in the rocky outcrops in The Karoo where it can easily hide from the sun.

Its activity levels are also limited to the rainy period and these turtles are even known to surface just as it starts to rain.

With a carapace that grows up to 5 inches, the small species prefers flowers and plants in its diet.

It doesn’t eat just any type of plant, showing preferences for plants that grow when it rains.

Heat and frost are realities of The Great Karoo the burrowing Karoo Padloper has to deal with.

Sandstone and ironstone areas of its vast arid climate provide the rocks the tortoise hides under.

Food choices are scarce here for Karoo Padlopers. They include flowering plants such as desert ephemerals.

Very specific dietary choices only allow this species to thrive in its natural habitat as opposed to living in captivity.