February 2, 2009

Mojave Max Still Hiding

Winter To Continue In Las Vegas Valley

KVVU News and Richard Lake
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Mojave Max, a desert tortoise estimated to be 19 years old, sleeps in his temporary den -- a plastic pipe at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Photo by Gary Thompson.

LAS VEGAS -- Punxsutawney Phil has confirmed it on the East Coast, and the lack of Mojave Max's appearance has confirmed it on the West Coast -- winter will continue.

Max, the famous desert tortoise who serves as a Clark County mascot of sorts, lives in the ground from about Halloween each year until spring. He's staying at the conservation center, near Mountain's Edge in the far southwest valley, because his regular home at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is being renovated.

To help the county determine when Max will appear, they will hold the Mojave Max Emergence Contest. Students are encouraged to study the behavior of desert tortoises and guess when Mojave Max will first exit his burrow each year.

When he comes out depends on a few things. An internal clock. Flowers, maybe. Temperature and sunlight.

Which is where the Groundhog Day connection comes in.

Ten years ago, Clark County officials started pushing Max as an alternative to the eastern groundhog. He is better, they contended, at alerting us busy humans to the onset of spring.

There is no shadow involved. No silliness. Just some scientists and a hole.

When Max comes out, it's springtime. Before that, it is winter. This usually happens in March or April.

This publicity stunt -- and everybody knows that's what it is -- has an educational element. Schoolchildren have been recruited to guess when Max will come out. The student with the closest guess wins a prize.

This contest allows conservation officials to push their message, namely that Max, part of a threatened species, matters in the whole scheme of things.

The contest and educational campaign has been such a success, said Christina Gibson with the county, that it's been replicated in California with that state's own version of Max.

Some astute readers might be saying to themselves, "Hey. Didn't Mojave Max die last year?" In fact, he did. The old Max died of what is thought to be natural causes at the estimated age of 65.

A new, younger, handsomer Max with an inspiring backstory took his place. The new Max carries on the tradition of his predecessor in indicating the start of spring.

So anyway, it is one scientist's job to drive his 4x4 out to Max's habitat every day. He peeks into the hole where Max lives to make sure he's still living there.

When Max emerges, the scientist will record the event for the schoolchildren's contest.

Which could be any day now. Today, for example. Or Wednesday. Maybe Thursday. Friday. Saturday. Sunday. Monday ...

The scientist will repeat this routine, every day, for as long as necessary.