Variation in annual clutch phenology of desert tortoises (Gopherus morafkai) in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona


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The phenology of egg production and oviposition in organisms affects survival and development of neonates and thus, both offspring and maternal fitness. In addition, in organisms with environmental sex determination, clutch phenology can affect hatchling sex ratios with attendant effects on population demography. The rapid rate of contemporary climate change might disrupt reproductive phenologies that evolved to match environmental conditions. To better understand the response of clutch phenology to annual and long-term changes in climate, we studied a population of Sonoran Desert Tortoises (Gopherus morafkai) in Arizona in 1993 and 1997–2005, specifically quantifying three phenophases, including (1) the estimated time of appearance of shelled eggs in females, (2) the estimated time that eggs were last visible in X-radiographs, and (3) the duration of the interval between the first two events. The mean date for appearance of shelled eggs was 6 June, and the mean date they were last visible was 26 June. After controlling for individual female effects, these dates were different among years. The total number of days that eggs were visible across all females within a year differed among years, but the mean duration of time that clutches were visible, after controlling for individual female effects, was similar among years. Three of 18 females exhibited interannual egg retention on 5 occasions from 52 clutches. Although G. morafkai ovulates only one clutch per year, they might oviposit up to two because of interannual egg retention. Most females produced shelled eggs through heat-unit accumulation achieving 8.3 degree days within a 14-d moving average. The ability to vary the timing of egg formation and oviposition might buffer G. morafkai from some of the effects of predicted increases in temperatures, but species-specific information on developmental temperatures and nesting behavior are needed to determine whether or not the species will be able to produce viable clutches of mixed sex ratios in a warmer climate.

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Publication Subtype:
Journal Article
Variation in annual clutch phenology of desert tortoises (Gopherus morafkai) in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona
Series title:
Online First
Year Published:
The Herpetologists' League
Contributing office(s):
Southwest Biological Science Center
United States