Animals survive wildfires by running, so it would be safe to assume turtles don’t stand much of a chance.
Yet wildlife experts in Utah say they just discovered one particular Mojave Desert tortoise that shows evidence of having survived not one, but two large wildfires. That seems almost impossible, given the endangered species moves about 0.2 mph, according to the National Park Service.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources says staff found the tortoise while surveying wildfire damage in southern Utah.
“Not only did he survive the Turkey Farm Road fire in July (nearly 12,000 acres), but he also has old burn scars from the 2005 Mill Creek fire! (more than 14,000 acres),” the division said in a Sept. 23 Facebook post. “Take a look at the flaking layers of laminae on the … plates that cover the shell — those are old burn marks.”
Photos of the burn scars were posted, along with an image showing the tortoise is now living in a forbidding world of baked dirt and ashes. Mojave Desert tortoises are a threatened species that can live 80 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They survive on a diet of grass, wildflowers and cactuses, the service says.
The species is considered “one of the most elusive inhabitants of the desert,” which is probably how the tortoise survived two fires. The desert tortoise is known for “spending up to 95% of its life underground” to escape cold in winter and heat in summer, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Warm weather burrows are “only be a few inches from the surface,” while winter burrows may be three feet deep. “In order for a tortoise to survive a wildfire, it must be in a stable deep burrow and, importantly, remain in the burrow until the surrounding ash cools,” Utah officials posted.