Journey inside Colossal Cave – Arizona’s dormant cave

Before entering Colossal Cave it was essential to educate ourselves and obtain some “cave basics”.  The facts and information we learned about limestone caves made our trip profoundly interesting!

Colossal Cave is an archaic KARST CAVE (meaning erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, caverns and underground streams).

Colossal Cave is a Karst cave
Karst region

Karst caves have 3 categories:  limestone, gypsum and quartzite.

Colossal Cave is limestone and considered dormant, “dry”.  A dry cave is without drips of water, streams or pools.  How was the cave formed?  Here is a short, simple answer:

  • Precipitation mixes with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and decaying organic material in the soil.
  • When Carbon dioxide is dissolved in water it forms carbonic acid. The carbonic acid begins to form holes in rocks, seeps into crevices and dissolves the rocks, especially limestone; but very slowly.  (Thousands of years)
    rock crevices and joints.
  • Cavities form and further sculpting can occur from water and chemical weathering.
  • After passing through limestone, the acid water contains a dis-solvable calcium carbonate.  As this solution de-gases through exposure to air by way of splashing, dripping or flowing, it loses carbon dioxide and deposits a solid mineral called calcite.
  • Calcite is the main mineral component in CAVE FORMATIONS, (speleothems).
Calcite, which gets its name from “chalix” the Greek word for lime, is a most amazing and yet, most common mineral. – See more at: http://www.galleries.com/Calcite#sthash.7JQ91AJ6.dpuf

The SPELEOTHEMS in Colossal Cave no longer grow. This cave formed by water depositing limestone that has NOW disappeared.  Close by, in the same mountain park, are Arkenstone and La Tetera Caves with active growing formations.

dormant speleothems in Colossal Cave
crystallized calcium carbonate formations

The most abundant mineral in limestone is calcite (calcium carbonate).  The majority of limestone formed on ANCIENT ocean floors.

Calcite is a main component used by echinoderms, like sea urchins, starfish, and sand dollars to make their spines and skeletons.  Calcium carbonate (calcite),  is found in the shells of marine organisms and truly is one of the MOST abundant minerals on earth!

In the marine environment, if the conditions are right, calcite is stable enough that it can cement together sediments and overtime make limestone.

calcite in the ocean water
limestone towers in the Atlantic ocean

On occasion another element may be present while calcite is being formed (ex: magnesium) and take the place of a calcium atom.

A less stable aragonite is a polymorph of calcite. They are both calcium carbonate but have different crystal shapes and symmetries.  The calcium, oxygen and carbon atoms in aragonite bond together differently creating a unique crystal structure.

Ok this is plenty of background information so now journey with us to Colossal Cave Mountain Park!

what to do in Tucson
The retaining wall and Visitor’s Center at Colossal Cave

The elevation of Colossal Cave Mountain Park is about 3,500 feet.  The temperature of the cave averages 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  No extra clothing is needed but feel free to carry water or a camera.

Colossal Cave in Vail, Arizona
walkway outside of Colossal Cave entrance

Frank Schmidt was monumental in the improvements and preservation of Colossal Cave by handing over his leases to the State of Arizona.  You can find information and historical photographs at La Posta Quemada Ranch Museum.

preserved Colossal Cave
Frank Schmidt statue at the cave

 

good picnics and kids activities at this Tucson park
bring the family and spend the day at this Arizona park

In 1879, Solomon Lick, the owner of the nearby hotel, was searching for stray cattle and discovered the entrance to this cave.

Arizona historical sites to see
professional guides take you through this historical landmark

Thousands of years ago Colossal Cave was used by Hohokam, Sobaipure and Apache Indians.  Travel down the road to the ranch museum for a fascinating display.

must see historical sites in Tucson, AZ
Colossal Cave has 363 steps

Most crystals are found in areas, like caves, because they take thousands of years to grow.  The growth continues until the saturation is stopped or the cave dries out.  Most crystals in a cave are calcite or aragonite.

visotors must see in Tucson, Arizona
calcite in the cave

Your tour guide will tell the story of the bandits who hid out in Colossal Cave.  These outlaws even played cards in the Colossal Cave Living Room. Legend has it that the gold from the train robbers is still inside the cave!

Stay with the tour group.  Our guide really wasn’t kidding when she said the group might go left and you’ll go right and be lost for hours in Colossal Cave.

Tectonic activity is noticeable.  Your guide will point out a fault in the earth’s crust.

Colossal Cave spelunking
Fault lines inside the cave

Cave’s formations, speleothems, are created by the same water that dissolved the calcite in the limestone —- then deposited the calcite in other areas of the cave.

historical caves in Arizona
stalagmites and stalactites in Colossal Cave

Stalactites – “c” for ceiling – hang from the top of caves like icicles

stalagmites and stalactites
cave formations with labels

Stalagmites – “g” for ground – emerge from the ground like a traffic cone

Because Colossal Cave is DRY;  the appearance of these speleothems is different than living caves.

Layers of calcite build up into fluted curtains.
Layers of calcite build up into fluted curtains.
 cave
our wonderful tour guide at Colossal Cave
FDR's Conservation Corp
Civilian Conservation Corps designated by President Roosevelt

In the 1930’s, a Civilian Conservation Corps designated by President Roosevelt worked tirelessly building the retaining wall outside and improving the inside of Colossal Cave.

The CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps, constructed the stairs, bridges and handrails.

Colossal Cave repairs and protection
Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, helping Colossal Cave

While visiting this cave do adventure down the road to La Posta Quemada Ranch.

what to do in Tucson, Arizona
visit the historical Ranch at Colossal Cave Park

Colossal Cave and the historic La Posta Quemada Ranch are listed on the National Historic Register.  When you visit be sure to enjoy a Desert Spoon Burger!

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Desert turtles in Arizona – difference between male and female tortoises

ARIZONA TORTOISE | Turtles – Do NOT pick up the Desert Tortoise unless it is in harms way. The Tortoise will get scared and release the water in its bladder and most likely die during the dry season.

turtles in the desert
Arizona Desert Tortoise, Gopherus agassizii

It is also illegal and detrimental to the desert tortoise populations to collect tortoises from the wild.

Arizona turtle tortoise
desert tortoise have tails

Removing any of the six species of Arizona’s native turtle / tortoise can severely affect local populations because they reproduce very slowly in natural conditions.

  • Desert Tortoises
  • Ornate Box Turtles
  • Mud Turtles
  • Painted Turtles

What is the difference between Male and Female Tortoises?

It can take up to 20 years before the Desert Tortoise starts showing physical characteristics that are typical of the 2 sexes.  The sex of a tortoise is based on the temperature of the nest and NOT genetics.

Phoenix Desert Tortoise
Desert Tortoise in Sonoran Desert, AZ

One way to tell the difference between the female and male tortoise is by the TAIL.  A male tortoise has a larger tail than the female.   The female’s is very short.  Also, male tortoises have 2 chin glands that are enlarged during mating season.  Sometimes a white gooey liquid comes out of the male’s chin glands.

dinosaurs in Arizona
Desert Tortoise at Colossal Cave, AZ

The Desert Tortoise is called – “A LIVING DINOSAUR”

Facts:

Dinosaurs became extinct but turtles & tortoises have thrived in their present form for approximately 150 million years.

This Tortoise is one of four species that have remained unchanged since the Oligocene Epoch  27-37 million years ago.

Arizona Tortoise photos
Desert Tortoise eating cactus

Arizona Game and Fish Department’s TURTLE PROJECT works to manage and conserve all six species of turtles/tortoises.  They receive hundreds of young and adult Tortoises that have been displaced due to construction or raised in captivity. The TURTLE PROJECT has Tortoises available for adoption.

A captive tortoise has to be raised in captivity for the rest of its life.   It can live to be 100 years old.

Gopherus agassizii
Desert Tortoise back elephant like legs

If a captured tortoise is released in the wild it can introduce diseases and jeopardize the wild populations.  URTD (an upper respiratory infection) has caused catastrophic die-offs in the Mojave tortoise population, resulting in Mojave Tortoise being placed on the federal listing under the Endangered Species Act

If you are interested in Tortoises but are not in the position to adopt, you can still participate in the Sponsor-a-Turtle program.  By donating to the Turtles Project, you will help project biologists purchase specialized gear so that they may continue to plan and implement conservation and management.  Click here to download the Sponsor-a-Turtle program brochure.

Arizona tortoise turtle
Desert Tortoise eating dark greens

A tortoise is a high-domed turtle, with “columnar” legs,  or elephant-like.  It is more terrestrial ( an animal that lives on land as opposed to water) than the turtle is, Arizona Tortoises go to water only to drink or bathe. They are NOT designed for swimming.

When the tortoise/turtle species emerges from winter torpor(brumation),  it will eat new growth cacti and their flowers, grasses and some shrubs.

tortoise in Arizona eat prickly pear cactus
Desert Tortoise ate cactus fruit

** What is Brumation – it is different than hibernation; when mammals hibernate, they actually sleep; when reptiles brumate, their metabolism slows down making them less active, and so they just barely need to eat.

male female Arizona Tortoise Turtle
male and female desert Tortoise in Arizona

Reptiles can often go through the whole winter without eating.  Brumation is triggered by lack of heat and the decrease in daylight hours.

A single tortoise may have a dozen or more burrows distributed over its home range. These burrows may be used by different tortoises at different times. Some of their burrows just extend beyond the shell of the tortoise inside.

Tortoise Den in Arizona
Male Desert Tortoise in the den

The tortoise is able to live where ground temperatures may exceed 140 degrees F, because of its ability to dig underground burrows and escape the heat.

Image courtesy of AZ Game and Fish Dept. http://www.azgfd.gov/

Desert tortoises generally emerge from their burrows mid-March to feed. During this approximate six week period: fresh green grass and spring wildflowers are their primary nutritional source.

Arizona Tortoise, Tucson Turtle
Gopherus agassizi, Desert Tortoise eat grass

In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona,  tortoises tend to live on steep, rocky hillside slopes in Palo Verde trees/shrubs and Saguaro Cactus areas.

Sonoran Desert Tortoise Turtle
Desert Tortoise in Tucson, Arizona

The tortoise’s forelimbs are flattened with well-developed muscles for digging burrows and the hind limbs are elephantine in which the female tortoise uses to dig her nests.

Desert tortoise turtle
Female Desert Tortoise in Arizona
Desert Tortoise in Arizona
Desert Tortoise Shell

Fighting may occur any time male tortoises encounter each-other. When fighting the desert tortoise/turtle will use the gular scutes to ram and flip other males. A flipped male will usually right itself after the defeat, but if it cannot, it will die.

female and male tortoise difference
male on the left and female tortoise on the right

The turtle shell is a highly complicated shield for the tortoise;, completely enclosing all the vital organs and in some tortoise/turtle species even the head.

Arizona Desert Tortoise turtle
The Shell of a Desert Tortoise

Helping to make the desert tortoise suited for desert-life is the ability to acquire almost all of its water from the plants that it eats. Because desert tortoises live in an arid climate where most of the rainfall occurs during the monsoon; the Tortoise is able to store water in its bladder for use during drought.

Adult tortoises have very few natural predators because of its thick, scaly skin and hard shell. In the Sonoran desert, mountain lions are their main predators.  Worse than predation, however, is the pressure the species is under from development, the construction of roads, and other human activities that degrade its habitat and cause mortality.

tucson tortoise turtle
Desert tortoise eating

Courting, mating and copulation may occur any time that tortoises are above ground; however, there seems to be more of this behavior in late summer and early fall when the testosterone levels peak in male tortoises.

Arizona male Tortoise copulating
Desert Tortoise, Turtles mating

 

Females store sperm and their egg laying occurs in May, June and July.

desert turtle young tortoise
small baby desert tortoise

A mature female tortoise might lay 4-8 white, hard-shelled eggs in a clutch and produce 2, sometimes 3 clutches in a season. Only a few tortoise eggs out of every hundred actually make it to adulthood.

arizona young tortoise hatchling
baby desert tortoise

After laying her eggs, the female tortoise leaves the nest.  The soil temperatures support growth of the embryos.  The incubation period is 90 to 120 days.

Tucson baby desert tortoise turtle
Tiny baby desert tortoise

Unfortunately, slow growth and soft shells make baby tortoises particularly vulnerable to predators.

 

Tortoises can not swim! – Sonoran desert tortoise – adopting a tortoise as a pet

Where do Desert Turtles / Tortoises live?  The Desert Tortoise  lives in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of southeastern California, southern Nevada, south Tucson, Arizona into Mexico.  The Desert tortoise is more active in summer and seeks shade under large rocks and boulders.

tortoise can go over a year without drinking water. One of its defense mechanisms when picked up or disturbed is to release the contents of its bladder, which can deplete its water supply and can cause harm or death for the tortoise during a drought. Is it ok to pick up a tortoise?  NO.  The tortoise releases its bladder, (water storage).  DO NOT PICK UP TORTOISES.  Exception, if it is going to be hit by a car…

arizona turtle tortoise
Arizona Desert Tortoise

The Desert Tortoise is an herbivore that will reach 9 to 15 inches in upper shell length (carapace).   A carapace is a dorsal (upper) section of the shell or exoskeleton.  In turtles and tortoises, the belly or underside is called the plastron.

The Tortoise shell is used as protection against predators.  In certain species there is a hinge between the abdominal and pectoral scutes allowing the turtle to almost completely enclose itself.

Desert Tortoises like to eat Creosote bush, burrobush, mojave yucca and blackbrush.

desert tortoise
a neighborhood desert tortoise

In this picture above is one of the 3 desert tortoises that live by our home in southern Arizona, outside of Tucson.  Our tortoise buddy must have been in a battle with a predator and lost its right foot.  This Tortoise is still going strong and I look for him every summer.  I call him “Stumpy”.

Desert Tortoise
Arizona Desert Tortoise / Turtle – protected

Breeding captive tortoises is discouraged because of the number of young tortoises already available for adoption. Occasionally, an adult female tortoise may lay eggs in a backyard that results in tortoise hatchlings.   It is important that Tortoise hatchlings, babies are kept outside, so that their shell and bone development can benefit from sunlight.

Do tortoises swim?  NO, tortoises do not have web feet and cannot swim!

tucson tortoise turtle
Stumpy the tortoise eating

A desert Tortoise can live up to a 100 years old.

Arizona Game and Fish Department’s TURTLE PROJECT works to manage and conserve all six species of turtles/tortoises.  See the link below.

http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/turtlemanagement.shtml

They receive hundreds of young and adult Tortoises that have been displaced due to construction or raised in captivity.  The TURTLE PROJECT has Tortoises available for adoption.