Desert Tortoise Facts: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Diane Sieverson

Diane has taught all subjects at the elementary level, was the principal of a K-8 private school and has a master's degree in Measurement and Evaluation.

Desert tortoises are a kind of tortoise that live in a small area of the United States. This lesson will teach you about desert tortoises, how they are able to live in the desert, what they eat and where these tortoises are found.

What is a Desert Tortoise?

Imagine walking along in the desert as the sun rises. You hear something moving along the ground and look to see a slow creature with a round shell crawling over the rocky desert floor. It doesn't seem to be in any hurry, so you watch it for a while until it crawls under a bush as the sun becomes brighter. You've just seen a desert tortoise!

Desert Tortoise with Large Rounded Shell
Desert Tortoise with Large Rounded Shell

A desert tortoise is a large tortoise that mostly lives in deserts and digs burrows in the ground. They have large, brown, rounded shells that can be as long as 15 inches, making them look like desert tanks. Desert tortoises can weigh as much as 15 pounds, which is about the same as a Brittany spaniel.

Desert tortoises are reptiles, which means they lay eggs, don't make their own body heat, and have a hard covering. They can live well past 40 years old and are masters at surviving in the desert, which is why they have been living there for millions of years.

Where do Desert Tortoises Live?

In the wild, desert tortoises are found in a range that includes the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in Mexico, Arizona, Utah, California, and Nevada. Some also live in forests and grasslands within that range.

Desert tortoises have scaly legs that look like they belong to a really tiny elephant, and they have long claws, which are like built-in shovels attached to their feet that help them dig in the desert floor.

Desert Tortoise with Scaly Elephant Legs
Desert Tortoise with Scaly Elephant Legs

Though you probably only have one home, desert tortoises have summer and winter homes. They use those shoveling claws to dig deep holes in the ground where they live in the winter. Those holes can be as deep as six feet under the desert surface. In the summer, their burrows aren't as deep since they are more active.

Desert Tortoise in Shallow Summer Burrow
Desert Tortoise in Shallow Summer Burrow

Desert tortoises spend around 95% of their time in their underground hangout where it's not too hot or too cold, like having natural air conditioning. Though they don't hibernate like bears do, they rest from November through February in their comfy underground den.

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