Desert tortoises eat grasses and flowers.
Desert tortoises eat grasses and flowers.
Photograph by Kevin Ebi / Alamy Stock Photo

Desert Tortoise

Five eggs the size of Ping-Pong balls crack open as the tiny desert tortoises inside break through the shells. The two-inch-long babies immediately crawl off in search of flowers and grasses to eat. These animals may be newly hatched, but they already have survival skills that will allow them thrive in their harsh, sizzling-hot habitats.

Burrow builders

Desert tortoises live in the deserts of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. During the summer, ground temperatures in parts of their range can hit 140˚F. To beat the heat, desert tortoises use their strong forearms and tough nails to dig underground burrows where they can hide from the sun. Some of these tortoise tunnels are up to 32 feet in length. And the burrows can get pretty crowded. As many as 25 desert tortoises might bunk together in one shelter.

The animals also dig grooves into on the ground’s surface to catch rainwater. After a storm, they’ll return to these holes to slurp up the water that’s collected inside. Once it’s had a good drink, a desert tortoise can go up to a year without requiring fresh water again. The reptile stores the water it has consumed in its bladder and can later absorb the liquid when it needs to hydrate. 

Tortoise tussle

Despite sometimes hanging out in burrows together, desert tortoises are pretty solitary. And sometimes when males come across each other, they’ll fight to establish dominance. The dueling duo may use horns on their chests to try and knock each other over. The contest ends when one animal flips the other on its back. The losing tortoise can turn right side up by wiggling its body back and forth until it flips over. But after that, the tortoise knows who’s boss. Sounds like a tortoise's shell isn't the only thing about it that's tough!