The Desert Tortoise Enclosure
There is a lot of information on the keeping of Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai). We suggest you join the Tucson Herpetological Society (<— click there) as a support group, since the desert tortoise will get you hooked on herps.
This info sheet (<— click there) will help you understand a lot about raising these majestic creatures, but you better make plans and write out a will because they will most likely outlive you!
If you are a rancher, here is a guideline of best practices for ranches with Sonoran desert tortoise habitat.
When we first got our native tortoise we were surprised at some of the foods that are not only edible for them, but essential for them. I remember keeping my baby tortoise away from spurges (Euphorbia spp.) because I thought they would be poisonous to them—they are poisonous to many other animals. Turns out, they love spurge and it is very important to their diet. Make sure you have a group of plants that has some kind of green year round, and that you include some fast spreading plants like ground covers and vines. Some plants can double as shade/habitat plants, especially the taller, mound-forming grasses or shrubs with pendulous stems that touch the ground.
Also consider more than just greens. Desert tortoises love the occasional cactus fruit or desert willow flower. Remember that many of these plants double as butterfly nectar and/or larval food plants. So you can make the desert tortoise habitat work double duty as a butterfly garden.
Suggested plants for tortoises
This list is not exhaustive. You can experiment to see what they will eat.
Tortoises instinctively know what is ok to consume and what is not, so don’t worry about poisoning them.
All native grasses—a mix of sizes is suggested. The large ones like bamboo muhly provide shelter as well as food. The fast spreading ones like vine mesquite (Hopia obtusa) provide a constant supply of food.
Plants in the Malvaceae (Abutilon, Malva (cheeseweed is usually a weed for people, tortoises love it), Hibiscus, Herissantia, Anoda.
Plants in the Onagraceae (evening primrose, willowherb, sundrops, fireweed).
Legumes—small ones for food, large ones for food and shelter. This includes Daleas, fairy dusters, Lotus, Lupine, Astragalus, Senna. Prairie acacia (Acaciella angustissima) provides shelver and food. Tortoises love to nibble on the tender, spreading stems that poke above the ground.
Asters—dogweeds (Thymophylla spp), desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), pincussions (Chaenactis spp.), Trixus californica,
Plantaginaceae: Plantago spp., Snapdragon vine (Maurandya antirrihiflora), Penstemon spp., Linaria spp.
Surprisingly, Zygophyllaceae—Larrea (creosote bush), Kallstroemia spp. (summer poppies), and the much maligned goat’s head weed (Tribulus terrestris) which we would never suggest planting, but would provide food for your tortoise if it tries to come up in your enclosure.
Nyctaginaceae—Spiderlings (Boerhavia spp. many of which come up as weeds), four o’clocks (Mirabilis).
Acanthaceae—Ruellia, Anisacanthus, Dicliptera, Justicia, Calowrightia.
Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) and Chitalpa drop flowers that tortoises love to eat. They also provide shade in the summer, and go dormant to allow sun into the enclosure in the cool season.
Surprisingly, Euphorbia species. Especially the spurges. These often come up in the landscape wanted or not.
Vining and quickly spreading plants—these spread and constantly produce more for tortoises to eat. Plants like snapdragon vine, Cissus trifoliata, the native Dichondra species, passion flowers, Vitis spp. (the native grape vines). Most morning glories are vining plants and all of them are food for tortoises.
Cactaceae—tortoises love cactus fruits. Especially the ones they can reach (smaller cactus). Mammillaria, Echinocereus, Opuntia, Saguaro.
Buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.)
For more information
The Sonoran Desert Tortoise: Natural History, Biology, and Conservation by Thomas R. Van Devender. Published by University of Arizona Press, 2002.
Health Care and Rehabilitation of Turtles and Tortoises by Amanda Ebenhack. Published by Living Art, 2012; www.livingartpublishing.com.
Tortoises and Box Turtles: A Complete Owner’s Manual by Hartmut Wilke and Gyorgy Jankovics. Published by Barron’s Educational Series, 2000.