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ESR 43:305-321 (2020)  -  DOI:

Head-started Agassiz’s desert tortoises Gopherus agassizii achieved high survival, growth, and body condition in natural field enclosures

Kenneth A. Nagy1,*, Brian T. Henen2, L. Scott Hillard1

1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095-1606, USA
2Environmental Affairs, MAGTFTC MCAGCC, Twentynine Palms, California 92278, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: We measured survival, growth, and body condition of 8 hatchling cohorts of desert tortoises Gopherus agassizii (living in predator-resistant outdoor pens in the Mojave Desert, California, USA) over 11 yr to evaluate head-starting methods. At 11 yr of age, 7 times as many of the first cohort had survived than if they had been free-living tortoises. Subsequent improvements in predator control, food and water supplementation, and pen structure increased survival from 7 to 10 times that under wild conditions in younger cohorts. Annual survival averaged 96%. Carapace length (CL) increased 6.95 mm yr-1, similar to that of free-living tortoises. Annual growth rates varied with calendar year (possibly reflecting food and water supply), age, cohort (year hatched), mother, and in 4 dry years, with crowding. Most of the first cohort grew to a releasable size (CL >100 mm) by their 9th year. Body condition indices remained high, indicating little dehydration despite droughts in 8 of the 11 years, because irrigation offered drinking opportunities. Head-started tortoises developed fully hardened shells (≥98% of adult shell hardness) earlier (10.1 vs. 11.6 yr), but at a larger CL (117 vs. 104 mm) than did free-living tortoises. Selective feeding in head-start pens decreased subsequent germination of favored wildflower species, apparently by reducing the natural seedbank. Consequently, we reseeded and irrigated each autumn to promote subsequent spring food supply. We irrigated in early summer to enable drinking and ensuing consumption of dry, dead plants and Bermuda grass hay, a supplement. These procedures can greatly improve juvenile survivorship, and increase numbers of hard-shelled, midsized juveniles to help augment wild populations.

KEY WORDS: Survivorship · Predation · Emergence success · Density effects · Condition Index · Shell hardness index

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Cite this article as: Nagy KA, Henen BT, Hillard LS (2020) Head-started Agassiz’s desert tortoises Gopherus agassizii achieved high survival, growth, and body condition in natural field enclosures. Endang Species Res 43:305-321.

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