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Is It Time for Food Yet? This Tortoise Will Munch on Rocks Until Then

Illustration for article titled Is It Time for Food Yet? This Tortoise Will Munch on Rocks Until Then

Is it time for dinner yet? No? Fine, gonna munch on some rocks until then. Om nom nom...


This tortoise is munching on rocks at Joshua Tree National Park. Snacking on rocks is not uncommon for turtles and tortoises. Both nibble on rocks occasionally either by accident, out of boredom, or in an effort to get more minerals. That, or they’re secretly geologists doing mineral identification tests.

This desert tortoise is a Gopherus agassizii, one of California’s state reptiles. They spend roughly 95% of their time underground, using the sharp claws on the end of their stubby elephantine legs to dig burrows. They hibernate in the winter and estivate in the summer, sleeping through the worst desert weather.


After 15 to 20 million years of slow-but-steady existence, tortoises are currently a threatened species. This is in part because of a respiratory illness easily transmitted during social behaviour, but they are also threatened by human interaction. People illegally handling the tortoises can transmit disease, or scare them enough into voiding their bladder and robbing them of vital fluids.

Find desert tortoises in Joshua Tree National Park (just keep your hands to yourself!). Like other national parks around the country, they will be open on Black Friday as an alternative to rampant consumerism.


Image credit: National Park Service/Daniel Elsbrock

Contact the author at or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.


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They’re actually secretly geologists, in fact.

Tortoises of the genus Gopherus (actually, I think that it’s Xerobates now) have large, well-defined home ranges. Within these they establish what are called ‘tortoise mines’, which are shallow excavations that expose subsoil rich in one mineral or another (sorry, no information on which, but probably chlorides, sodium or potassium, also calcium, which anything which such a large skeleton is likely interested in). A tortoise will visit its mine every now and again, and from what I’ve heard, these visits are purposeful - the tortoise will emerge from its burrow and head directly for the mine, not deviating from its course. When it gets there it eats some of the soil exposed by the excavation, then leaves. Sounds like they are topping themselves up with some essential minerals that they can’t get from their diet.