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Tracking a rare tortoise? There’s an app for that

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Smart phones have increasingly become valuable tools in the conservation of rare species around the world. The latest example is an iPhone app called Mojave Desert Tortoise, which people can use to help researchers preserve the endangered species it is named after.

With the app, visitors to the Mojave Desert (which stretches between California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona) can take photos of any desert tortoises they happen to encounter. The app adds GPS data to the photo and sends it to researchers at the Mojave Desert Ecosystem Program (MDEP) and Desert Managers Group. The information will then be used to track the turtles’ movements and habits. The data will also eventually be made public online.

The app also offers users information about the Mojave desert tortoise and warns users that touching the animals or otherwise disturbing them is against the law.

MDEP project manager Fon Duke told California’s Daily Press that the app will save money compared with the paper surveys previously used.

The Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii ), which is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, has been one of the most expensive animals to protect in the U.S. According to the Associated Press, $93 million was spent on Mojave desert tortoise conservation between 1996 and 2006. The species’ population has dropped 80 to 90 percent since the 1980s because of urbanization and predation by ravens and coyotes (which have increased in the region because they tend to follow humans coming to the area). They also face a new wave of respiratory diseases that were not seen in desert tortoises before 1980 and were probably brought to the area with people’s pet tortoises.

In early October, more than 100 biologists and other contract workers rounded up several desert tortoises whose presence was blocking construction of a massive solar energy plant to be built in California’s Ivanpah Valley. The 3,280-acre site was believed to be the home to at least 36 adult tortoises and an unknown number of hatchlings, although only a few adults were located. The captured tortoises will be held for several months until a new, predator- and disease-free habitat is located for them.

Photo: Mojave Desert Turtle app screen shot, courtesy of Mojave Desert Ecosystem Program





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