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Web Feature | Environment

Video: Watch Baby Tortoises Hatch

Like the great whales of our oceans, the polar bears in the Arctic and the spotted owls of the Pacific Northwest, the desert tortoise has become a symbol of conservation.

Unlike the ease of seeing a whale off Southern California’s coast, however, finding a wild desert tortoise in its Southwest habitat can be a rare sight, as these creatures spend most of their lives underground, surviving temperatures around 150 degrees.

Furthering the rarity of spotting this slow-moving, threatened species is the mortality rate during the early years of its life. In general, out of 100 eggs laid in a healthy environment, only one hatchling will end up as a breeding adult about 18 years later.

A number of factors contribute to this, ranging from increased raven and coyote populations — thanks to urban sprawl — to sheep grazing and vehicles. If they survive the dangerous juvenile years, they can usually live in the wild for 50 to 60 years, sometimes even to 80.

The above video shot by Stephen M. Wessells of the United States Geological Survey is part of its Desert Tortoise program, which has the goal of providing "the scientific information necessary to manage desert environments to allow the species to recover and escape the threat of extinction."

Sources: USGS/YouTube, Ken Nagy/UCLA,, Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee

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