Research on new and emerging desert tortoise diseases is underway in the Mojave and Colorado deserts of California. Many desert tortoise populations have experienced significant declines. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the tortoise as a Threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and set aside critical habitat within the Mojave Desert.
At the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, Dr. Lizbeth Bowen and Dr. Keith Miles have developed the first leukocyte gene transcription biomarker panel for the desert tortoise. This new tool enhances the ability to identify specific environmental conditions potentially linked to declining animal health. Blood leukocyte transcript profiles have the potential to identify physiologically stressed animals in lieu of clinical signs. For desert tortoises, the gene transcript profile includes a combination of immune or detoxification response genes influenced by biological or physical injury and consequently provide information on the type and magnitude of stressors present in the animal’s habitat.