Scientists: Desperate coyotes eat tortoises as food in the drought

Scientists: Desperate coyotes eat tortoises as food in the drought
Scientists: Desperate coyotes eat tortoises as food in the drought(Kirk McLemore/FOX5)
Published: Oct. 31, 2022 at 9:19 PM MST
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - Scientists have discovered that desperate coyotes have resorted to eating the endangered desert tortoise for food, as the drought has led to the decline of other animals that are typical fare for the predator.

The phenomenon has been observed by Clark County and federal scientists looking to study the trend, as well as find solutions to protect the endangered desert tortoise. Clark County recently approved approximately $1.5 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to continue its research.

According to U.S.G.S. research ecologist Todd Esque, scientists have observed a decline in the rabbit populations across the El Dorado Valley. Researchers looked into whether disease played a role in dwindling numbers, but have determined that the drought is the cause.

“Until August, everything was brown out here. It leaves very little for the herbivores like the jackrabbits to eat. So the populations go way down,” Esque said. “The pressure is still on to find something to eat. Out here in the desert, [coyotes are] eating tortoises, when there’s nothing else to eat,” he said.

Animals such as foxes, ravens, vultures or badgers also eat tortoises as a food source. Coyotes typically feast on rodents or rabbits, but in scarce conditions, tortoises are fair game.

“A Jackrabbit for a coyote is the optimal meal; it’s sort of like the meal ready to go. A tortoise takes a lot of work. There’s not that much meat inside the shell. There’s the limbs, a few muscles for connectivity of the limbs, and the head. So it’s really a last choice on the menu list,” Esque said.

In a typical scenario in Mother Nature, the coyote population would decline as their food source dwindles, but scientists have discovered a different outcome. The cunning coyotes have found other places for sustenance: neighborhood trash cans, litter from hikers, and water from residential sprinklers that keep running.

“When there’s subsidized food and water, then the coyotes can just go to town and get a meal to fill in,” Esque said.

Local Southern Nevadans can help do their part to curb the coyote population and protect the tortoise: limiting sprinkler use, making sure trash outside is secure from wildlife, and curbing litter on local trails.

“Do our part-- take care of the desert,” Esque said.

Clark County will receive the results of the U.S.G.S. study in a few weeks. The study will be available to the public by spring.