Team Tortoise

December 01, 2017

STEAM academics middle school

They seem like such simple animals, really. They have a very basic design, with no flashy colors or elaborate feathers or sophisticated evolutionary enhancements. They look like what we could imagine a Tyrannosaurus Rex would keep as a pet -- sort of like a prehistoric lapdog. 

They can live for up to a year without food or water. They have survived for millions of years in the Mojave desert, a sandy, rocky, sometimes barren patch of earth that can reach temperatures up to 140 degrees. These simple little survivors have been doing their own thing for a very, very long time in the desert that we now call home. Once we showed up, things changed.

About 60 years ago, the desert tortoise had a stroke of very bad luck. The post-WWII boom in the Las Vegas valley laid the groundwork for explosive population growth and urban development that lasted for decades. Massive construction of roads, residential neighborhoods, resorts and commercial buildings devastated the natural landscape that the desert tortoise needed in order to thrive. Humans brought in off-road vehicles and dumped garbage in open desert spaces. Our cats and dogs brought foreign diseases and parasites, and commercial landscapers introduced toxic vegetation that tortoises couldn't eat. All of those years of adapting to a blazing hot, bone dry desert basin left tortoises with nowhere else to go, and so they just started to disappear. 

The desert tortoise population has declined, possibly by as much as 90 percent, since the 1980s. In 1990, it was listed as "threatened" on the Federal Endangered Species List.

Today there are more desert tortoises living in captivity in the Las Vegas valley than there are in the wild. For many years, people would find tortoises in the desert and take them home to keep as pets, only to realize that these animals can live as long as human beings. When humans dump pet tortoises in the desert, they spread diseases and genetic mutations that the animals develop while in captivity. Because of the dangers of reintroducing them to the wild population, it is illegal to remove tortoises from the desert or to breed, buy, sell, dump, or rehome them. It is even illegal to keep two tortoises in the same location. All captive tortoises are managed by tortoise advocacy groups licensed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Only approved "custodians" who meet the requirements of an official tortoise adoption group are allowed to take custody of a captive tortoise.

This winter, our new middle school STEAM elective class "Tortoise Habitat" is constructing a tortoise shelter in our outdoor garden area. We will welcome a new reptilian tenant in March (or maybe April if they're still hibernating). The shelter construction will be led by 8th grade student Lynus, who is completing this project to fulfill his final Eagle Scout service requirement. Mrs. Cadena, who is an avid tortoise enthusiast with a background in biology and engineering, is overseeing the project.

Our students have some hard work ahead of them in order to get the habitat ready by spring. This elective involves many integrated areas of engineering, life science and environmental science, and well as landscape design. Next year, we plan to add a tech component to the habitat with the addition of TORTOISE CAM so that we can monitor our friend's activities from anywhere in the world. 

But science, engineering and tech aside, this project is also philosophical. Try to imagine these gentle creatures living in our neighborhoods for 200 million years. Now think back to the first time the Beastie Boys told you that you gotta fight for your right to party. That's how long it's taken human beings to nearly wipe this prehistoric animal off the planet. Our students have an opportunity and a responsibility to learn the real world impact of urban sprawl, because soon, they will be the leaders making these choices for future generations. The hope is that by experiencing and understanding the tortoise's story, they will develop better insight and judgement about the ways we should interact with the earth's most fragile ecosystems and their unique inhabitants.

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