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Comparing husbandry techniques for optimal head-starting of the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

December 16, 2020

Mojave Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) populations continue to decline throughout their range. Head-starting—the captive rearing of offspring to a size where they are presumably more likely to survive post-release—is being explored as a potential recovery tool. Previous Desert Tortoise head-starting programs have reared neonates exclusively outdoors. Here, we explore using a combination of indoor and outdoor captive rearing to maximize post-release success and rearing efficiency. We assigned 68 neonates (2016 cohort) to one of two treatments: Outdoor HS (n = 38), where neonates were reared exclusively in outdoor predator-proof enclosures, and Combo HS (n = 30), where neonates were reared indoors for 1 y followed by outdoor rearing for 1 y. After 2 y of captive rearing, we randomly selected 24 Outdoor HS and 24 Combo HS juveniles for release in the Mojave National Preserve, CA on 25 September 2018. We compare pre-release size, body condition, and shell hardness as well as first year post-release movement and survival between the treatment groups. Pre-release body condition was not significantly different between groups. Outdoor HS tortoises, however, were significantly smaller and had significantly softer shells than Combo HS tortoises. Excluding two missing animals, released head-starts experienced 78.2% survival through their first year after release. Combo HS tortoises on average dispersed significantly shorter distances after 1 y than Outdoor HS animals. Our findings that Combo HS animals were larger and had harder shells at release, and exhibited high survival but low dispersal following release, support the implementation of combination head-starting as part of the recovery effort for the Mojave Desert Tortoise.

Publication Year 2020
Title Comparing husbandry techniques for optimal head-starting of the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)
Authors P. A. McGovern, K. A. Buhlmann, B. D. Todd, Clinton T. Moore, J. M. Peaden, J. Hepinstall-Cymerman, J. A. Daly, T. D. Tuberville
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Herpetological Conservation and Biology
Index ID 70228389
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Atlanta