Habitat use by sonoran desert tortoises

Erin R. Zylstra, Robert J. Steidl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


The distribution of desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) spans a wide range of biotic and abiotic conditions in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, with physical and behavioral differences distinguishing tortoises inhabiting the Mojave Desert from those inhabiting the Sonoran Desert. Relative to tortoise populations in the Mojave Desert, populations in the Sonoran Desert have not been well-studied. To assess how habitat use of desert tortoises in the Sonoran Desert was influenced by topography, vegetation, geomorphology, and soil, we surveyed 40 randomly located 3-ha sites for presence of adult tortoises within a site-occupancy framework. We modeled both occupancy and detection probability as a function of environmental features, and compared those results with a logistic regression model that assumed detection probability was equal to 1. Results from both approaches agreed, suggesting that habitat selection of tortoises in the Sonoran Desert was influenced primarily by topographic and geomorphologic features rather than by vegetation. Specifically, tortoises were more likely to occupy sites that were steep (we detected tortoises on 29 of sites with mean slope <5° and 92 of sites with mean slope >15°) and predominantly east-facing (53 of sites with <5 of site facing E and 92 of sites with >20 facing E), and less likely to occupy north-facing slopes (100 of sites with <10 of site facing N and 14 of sites with >60 facing N). Our results contrast with patterns of habitat use in the Mojave Desert where tortoises primarily occupy valley bottoms. Habitat use of tortoises in Sonoran and Mojave Desert populations differ considerably, contributing to the mounting body of evidence suggesting that these geographically distinct populations may represent separate species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)747-754
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Wildlife Management
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2009


  • Desert tortoise
  • Detection probability
  • Gopherus agassizii
  • Habitat
  • Site occupancy
  • Sonoran Desert

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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