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October 2010 cover image On the Scent

Wild Thing: Texas Tortoise Is Threatened But Still in the Race

Texas tortoises are on the state’s threatened species list, but so far they’ve managed to stay in the race.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Of our 30 turtle species in Texas, only one — Gopherus berlandieri, which occurs from South Texas into northern Mexico — is a true tortoise.

Unlike most turtles, Texas tortoises inhabit dry land and lack webbed feet. They use their claws to scrape out shady resting places called pallets beneath bushes or cacti. Water’s a rarity in South Texas, so Texas tortoises get hydrated through their veggie diet of prickly pear cacti, grass and other plants. Their shells measure up to 8 inches long.

Once heavily collected for the pet trade, the Texas tortoise remains on the state’s list of threatened species, which prohibits their capture or sale. Highway mortalities and loss of habitat have also negatively affected numbers of the animal.

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“But as long as Texas tortoises have adequate habitat and they’re not collected, they should do fine,” says Carl Franklin, a biological curator at the Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center at the University of Texas at Arlington. “In the wild, the species can live 50 to 60 years.”

Franklin, who maintains a website on Texas turtles (http://www.texasturtles.org), adds, “Still, turtles need all the help they can get.”

 

Factoid:

The scientific names of the Texas tortoise, the Rio Grande leopard frog and several plants honor the work of French naturalist Jean Louis Berlandier, who collected specimens in Texas and Mexico during the 1820s.

 

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