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Desert Tortoise Springs Back : Ecology: The March rains made the desert a lush carpet of grass and flowers for the first time in six years. It is a gourmet’s delight for the animals.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Herpetologist Glenn Stewart was down on all fours eyeballing the desert tortoise. The tortoise looked back at Stewart just as intently.

“Like all the others I’ve seen the past few weeks, he’s fat and sassy,” noted the Cal Poly Pomona professor. “A complete turnaround from what desert tortoises were last year.”

Stewart, 55, and about 20 students from his herpetology class have been making their annual spring survey of the health and well-being of Mojave Desert tortoises, snakes and lizards. At this time last year, the professor and students found lethargic, dehydrated, malnourished, sick, emaciated tortoises with sunken green eyes, wrinkled skin hanging loosely over protruding bones, Stewart said.

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The difference in 1991 is because of the March rains, which for the first time in six years made the desert a lush carpet of wild grasses, a rainbow of wildflowers, a gourmet’s delight for tortoises munching at the seemingly endless banquet table.

Stewart, a longtime Southern California expert on the threatened tortoise, was one of three scientists who, in 1974, founded the Desert Tortoise Council to study, preserve and protect the species. He continues as a director of the organization’s 12-member board.

The professor and students met in a parking lot on the Cal Poly campus at sunup Saturday for a two-day, 380-mile foray into the Mojave Desert. Stewart noted that the expedition’s purpose was not to take a reptile census, but to check the condition of tortoises, lizards and snakes.

After loading maps, sleeping bags, food, camp stoves, snake grabbers, snake hooks and fishing poles with lines fashioned into nooses to capture lizards, they drove in a caravan to Rainbow Basin, 10 miles north of Barstow.

They drove for miles along one-lane dirt roads, parked and headed out on foot across the open desert, alone and in groups of two or three to conduct their survey.

“Bring back lizards and snakes in your pillow cases and bags, but don’t touch or pick up tortoises, because they are a threatened species and it is illegal to disturb them,” cautioned Stewart.

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It was a gorgeous day, hardly a cloud in the powder-blue sky embracing the vast expanse of desert and mountains. Everyone saw tortoises and numerous lizards.

Several specimens of America’s smallest lizard--tiny 2- to 2 1/2-inch-long desert night lizards--were caught by students, as were Western whiptails, side-blotched and desert spiny lizards.

“It took me 20 minutes to nail this spiny,” said Frank Galicia, 23, a biology major from Los Angeles, as he held up a 10-inch-long creature that resembled a miniature dinosaur. Stewart noted that the spiny is a speedy character able to race along faster than 20 m.p.h.

“Notice how fat and swollen the tails are on the desert night lizards. They store body fat in their tails. See how solid and healthy all of the lizards are. Last year they were much thinner because of the drought. With the rich flora from the rains there are more insects, the main diet of lizards,” Stewart told the students.

He said the drought shortened the lives of the lizards and affected their reproduction, as it did with tortoises and snakes.

“Did any of the tortoises have runny noses?” asked the professor, explaining: “Upper respiratory disease has decimated desert tortoise populations since 1988, wiping out upwards of 50% of the reptiles on the 38-square-mile Desert Tortoise Natural Area in Kern County.”

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None of the tortoises surveyed by the group from Cal Poly had runny noses.

Biology major James Burns, 21, of San Dimas, found a large tortoise shell upside down under a dead Joshua tree. Stewart examined the shell and noted:

“I cannot tell why this animal died. It was a young male, 17 years old, the growth rings on his shell tell us. From tissues and decomposed head the tortoise apparently died earlier this year. Drought-related stress could have contributed to its short life. (Desert tortoises normally live 75 to 100 years.)

“If it hadn’t rained in March, I think we would have found the desert littered with tortoise shells like this.”

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