The distribution of desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) spans a wide range of biotic and abiotic conditions in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, with physical and behavioral differences distinguishing tortoises inhabiting the Mojave Desert from those inhabiting the Sonoran Desert. Relative to tortoise populations in the Mojave Desert, populations in the Sonoran Desert have not been well-studied. To assess how habitat use of desert tortoises in the Sonoran Desert was influenced by topography, vegetation, geomorphology, and soil, we surveyed 40 randomly located 3-ha sites for presence of adult tortoises within a site-occupancy framework. We modeled both occupancy and detection probability as a function of environmental features, and compared those results with a logistic regression model that assumed detection probability was equal to 1. Results from both approaches agreed, suggesting that habitat selection of tortoises in the Sonoran Desert was influenced primarily by topographic and geomorphologic features rather than by vegetation. Specifically, tortoises were more likely to occupy sites that were steep (we detected tortoises on 29% of sites with mean slope <5° and 92% of sites with mean slope >15°) and predominantly east-facing (53% of sites with <5% of site facing E and 92% of sites with >20% facing E), and less likely to occupy north-facing slopes (100% of sites with <10% of site facing N and 14% of sites with >60% facing N). Our results contrast with patterns of habitat use in the Mojave Desert where tortoises primarily occupy valley bottoms. Habitat use of tortoises in Sonoran and Mojave Desert populations differ considerably, contributing to the mounting body of evidence suggesting that these geographically distinct populations may represent separate species.
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Vol. 73 • No. 5