Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) populations have experienced precipitous declines resulting from the cumulative impact of habitat loss, and human and disease-related mortality. Evaluation of hematologic and biochemical responses of desert tortoises to physiologic and environmental factors can facilitate the assessment of stress and disease in tortoises and contribute to management decisions and population recovery. The goal of this study was to obtain and analyze clinical laboratory data from free-ranging desert tortoises at three sites in the Mojave Desert (California, USA) between October 1990 and October 1995, to establish reference intervals, and to develop guidelines for the interpretation of laboratory data under a variety of environmental and physiologic conditions. Body weight, carapace length, and venous blood samples for a complete blood count and clinical chemistry profile were obtained from 98 clinically healthy adult desert tortoises of both sexes at the Desert Tortoise Research Natural area (western Mojave), Goffs (eastern Mojave) and Ivanpah Valley (northeastern Mojave). Samples were obtained four times per year, in winter (February/March), spring (May/June), summer (July/August), and fall (October). Years of near-, above- and below-average rainfall were represented in the 5 yr period. Minimum, maximum and median values, and central 95 percentiles were used as reference intervals and measures of central tendency for tortoises at each site and/or season. Data were analyzed using repeated measures analysis of variance for significant (P < 0.01) variation on the basis of sex, site, season, and interactions between these variables. Significant sex differences were observed for packed cell volume, hemoglobin concentration, aspartate transaminase activity, and cholesterol, triglyceride, calcium, and phosphorus concentrations. Marked seasonal variation was observed in most parameters in conjunction with reproductive cycle, hibernation, or seasonal rainfall. Year-to-year differences and long-term alterations primarily reflected winter rainfall amounts. Site differences were minimal, and largely reflected geographic differences in precipitation patterns, such that results from these studies can be applied to other tortoise populations in environments with known rainfall and forage availability patterns.
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Vol. 35 • No. 2