Sonoran Desert Tortoise

The Sonoran Desert Tortoise, also called Morafka's desert tortoise is a reptile native to America's Sonoran Desert. In 2011, DNA helped researches distinguish this tortoise from another species now commonly known as the Mojave, or Agassiz's Desert Tortoise. Despite their similarities, their slight differences in behavior and habitat warranted a new identification. 


Sonoran Desert Tortoises are a medium-sized tortoise species, reaching around 15 inches long. They have a domed shell but a relatively flat body, with long forearms used for digging and shorter hindlegs. These limbs are a dark muddy color with scales. Their shell features distinct yellow or tan "spots" framed by a dark blue-black color. 


The Sonoran Desert is a harsh environment for any animal, and the desert tortoise has adapted to survive. Their main adaptation is the form of their excellent digging skills and ability to brumate. They find a hospitable area, typically under a shrub or rock, and dig a burrow deep into the soil, sometimes as far down as six feet. Once this burrow is created, they spend the majority of their time underground. Not only does this allow them to survive in temperatures as high as 140 degrees, but also through the freezing nights of the desert. 

Seeing Doubles

For some time, there was thought to only be a singular species known as the Sonoran Desert Tortoise. In 2017, DNA testing proved a genetic difference between some of the individuals, prompting the identification of a new species called the Mojave Desert Tortoise. However, it has been noted that members of the Mojave species have begun migrating into the Sonoran desert, causing some confusion based on their names. In an effort to truly differentiate the two, researchers have recommended the Sonoran Desert Tortoise be referred to as Morafka's desert tortoise and the Mojave referred to as Agassiz's.

Where are they?

Our Sonoran Desert Tortoises live on the right side of the Children's Animal Center.

If you can't see them inside, walk around the side of the building and see if you can spot them sunning in the outdoor portion of their enclosure.

Quick Facts

Scientific Name

Gopherus morafkai

Species Survival Plan





Herbs, wildflowers cacti, leaves and more.

Originally Native To

The Southwestern United States.


Domed shell, flat body and large yellow spots on their shell.


30 to 80 years

Social Behavior

Solitary, except during mating or a female with hatchlings.