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The effect of size on postrelease survival of head-started Mojave desert tortoises

August 20, 2020

Captive-rearing conservation programs focus primarily on maximizing postrelease survival. Survival increases with size in a variety of taxa, often leading to the use of enhanced size as a means to minimize postrelease losses. Head-starting is a specific captive-rearing approach used to accelerate growth in captivity prior to release in the wild. We explored the effect of size at release, among other potential factors, on postrelease survival in head-started Mojave desert tortoises Gopherus agassizii. Juvenile tortoises were reared for different durations of captivity (2–7 y) and under varying husbandry protocols, resulting in a wide range of juvenile sizes (68–145 mm midline carapace length) at release. We released all animals (n = 78) in the Mojave National Preserve, California, United States, on 25 September 2018. Release size and surface activity were the only significant predictors of fate during the first year postrelease. Larger sized head-starts had higher predicted survival rates when compared with smaller individuals. This trend was also observed in animals of the same age but reared under different protocols, suggesting that accelerating the growth of head-started tortoises may increase efficiency of head-starting programs without decreasing postrelease success. Excluding five missing animals, released head-starts had 82.2% survival in their first year postrelease (September 2018–September 2019), with all mortalities resulting from predation. No animals with >90-mm midline carapace length were predated by ravens. Our findings suggest the utility of head-starting may be substantially improved by incorporating indoor rearing to accelerate growth. Target release size for head-started chelonians will vary among head-start programs based on release site conditions and project-specific constraints.

Publication Year 2020
Title The effect of size on postrelease survival of head-started Mojave desert tortoises
DOI 10.3996/JFWM-20-014
Authors P. A. McGovern, K. A. Buhlmann, B. D. Todd, Clinton T. Moore, J. M. Peaden, J. Heppenstall-Cymerman, J. A. Daly, T. D. Tuberville
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management
Index ID 70228405
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Atlanta