Killed tortoise likely decades, not centuries old

7:34 AM, Oct 15, 2013   |    comments
A desert tortoise hides in its shell in Joshua Tree National Park on Friday, July 27, 2012, in Twentynine Palms, Calif.(Photo: Marilyn Chung, The Palm Spring, Calif., Desert Sun)
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WHITEWATER, Calif. - Reports of a "humongous" "200-year-old" desert tortoise who was struck and killed Sunday on the I-10 freeway drew nationwide interest, but it turns out that the tortoise's age and size may have been more of a guesstimate than actual fact.

The possibilities were endless, had the tortoise tale been true.

If he (or she) had been born in approximately 1813, he was here before the British burned Washington (1814), before the start of the Gold Rush (1849), before California gained its statehood (1850), before the U.S. Civil War (1861) and would have been alive during the terms of all but three American presidents (George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson).

However, the tortoise's reported age was likely way off the mark, according to experts.

Robert Lovich, a San Diego-based herpetologist who's done work in the local desert, said desert tortoises live "mere decades."

"Unfortunately, this is all too common," Lovich said of the high, unattributed estimate. "Most tortoises can definitely exceed 20 years. Multi-decades is not uncommon. In a controlled environment (as a pet or in a zoo) they can live 40 years."

At least 50 calls flooded into the California Highway Patrol's dispatch center in Indio on Sunday reporting the sighting, using adjectives like "gigantic" and "huge" to describe the tortoise, said Darren Meyer, public information officer for the San Gorgonio Pass Area CHP.

He's not sure who came up with the age estimate that appeared on the CHP's traffic incident information page on Sunday afternoon.

"I don't know where the 200 years came from," he said, adding the tortoise weighed approximately 100 pounds, much larger than the endangered desert tortoise, which weighs about 25 to 30 pounds.

It is the African spurred tortoise, or Sulcata, which can grow to between 100 and 200 pounds and live longer than 150 years.

Meyer has worked in the area for 10 years and he's seen bears, cattle, horses, coyotes and even an eagle wander into traffic on the I-10 - but never a tortoise.

"It's the first one I've ever heard of get on the freeway," he said. "They usually don't make it past the freeway fence."

He said the tortoise was struck before officers could get out to the area to perform a traffic break. Whoever happened to hit the tortoise didn't file a report of a collision

Unfortunately, the tortoise was traveling on one of the busiest days of the week.

"That was not a good time to cross the road in the turtle world," Meyer said.

The remains of the tortoise were removed by Caltrans, Meyer said.

Some years ago, there was a report of a huge tortoise roaming the wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park, Lovich said. It was a pet Sulcata that had escaped from its home.

"It weighed over 200 pounds," Lovich said. "A small kid could ride that bad boy."

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