While demographic changes in short-lived species may be observed relatively quickly in response to climate changes, measuring population responses of long-lived species requires long-term studies that are not always available. We analyzed data from a population of threatened Agassiz’s desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) at a 2.59 km2 study plot in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem of Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA from 1978 to 2012 to examine variation in apparent survival and demography in this long-lived species. Transect-based, mark-recapture surveys were conducted in 10 of those years to locate living and dead tortoises. Previous modeling suggested that this area would become unsuitable as tortoise habitat under a warming and drying climate scenario. Estimated adult population size declined greatly from 1996 to 2012. The population appeared to have high apparent survival from 1978 to 1996 but apparent survival decreased from 1997 to 2002, concurrent with persistent drought. The best model relating apparent survivorship of tortoises ≥18 cm over time was based on a three year moving average of estimated winter precipitation. The postures and positions of a majority of dead tortoises found in 2012 were consistent with death by dehydration and starvation. Some live and many dead tortoises found in 2012 showed signs of predation or scavenging by mammalian carnivores. Coyote (Canis latrans) scats and other evidence from the site confirmed their role as tortoise predators and scavengers. Predation rates may be exacerbated by drought if carnivores switch from preferred mammalian prey to tortoises during dry years. Climate modeling suggests that the region will be subjected to even longer duration droughts in the future and that the plot may become unsuitable for continued tortoise survival. Our results showing wide fluctuations in apparent survival and decreasing tortoise density over time may be early signals of that possible outcome.
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Climatic variation and tortoise survival: has a desert species met its match?