Field evaluation of free-ranging wildlife requires the systematic documentation of a variety of environmental conditions and individual parameters of health and disease, particularly in the case of rare or endangered species. In addition, defined criteria are needed for the humane salvage of ill or dying animals. The purpose of this paper is to describe, in detail, the preparation, procedures, and protocols we developed and tested for the field evaluation of wild desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii). These guidelines describe: preparations for the field, including developing familiarity with tortoise behavior and ecology, and preparation of standardized data sheets; journal notes to document background data on weather conditions, temperature, rainfall, locality, and historic and recent human activities; procedures to prevent the spread of disease and parasites; data sheets for live tortoises to record tortoise identification, location, sex, body measurements and activity; health profile forms for documenting and grading physical abnormalities of tortoise posture and movements, general condition (e.g., lethargy, cachexia), external parasites, and clinical abnormalities associated with shell and upper respiratory diseases; permanent photographic records for the retrospective analysis of progression and regression of upper respiratory and eye diseases, analysis of shell lesions and evaluation of growth and age; and indications and methods for salvaging ill or dying tortoises for necropsy evaluation. These guidelines, tested on 5,000 to 20,000 tortoises over a 10 to 27 yr period, were designed to maximize acquisition of data for demographic, ecological, health and disease research projects; to reduce handling and stress of individual animals; to avoid spread of infectious disease; to promote high quality and consistent data sets; and to reduce the duration and number of field trips. The field methods are adapted for desert tortoise life cycle, behavior, anatomy, physiology, and pertinent disease; however the model is applicable to other species of reptiles. Comprehensive databases of clinical signs of disease and health are crucial to research endeavors and essential to decisions on captive release, epidemiology of disease, translocation of wild tortoises, breeding programs, and euthanasia.
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Vol. 37 • No. 3