November 16, 2013

Arizona tortoise habitat tripling in size

Sandra Lackey (left), President of the AWC Science Club, and George Arnett work on footings for the new tortoise habitat at the college during Friday's volunteer day. (Loaned Photo/AWC)

Yuma Sun

Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the desert tortoise shelter at Arizona Western College will not only get remodeled and improved, but it is expected to almost triple in size.

Science Club students from AWC and Northern Arizona University met Friday and Saturday with staff and members of the community to begin work on the shelter, which is part of a Habitat Improvement Project for the Science, Technology, and Engineering Reptiles Shelter (HISPTERS).

Located at the gravel courtyard between the AS (Agriculture and Science) building and the SR (NAU Research and Education) building at AWC, 2020 S. Avenue 8E, the project is hoped to be completed by spring, said Kevin Young, professor of science.

The existing male and female pens on campus hold a total of five tortoises and there is also another “sick pen” that currently has one tortoise in it near the CTE (Center for Teaching Effectiveness) building. Young said that they work with Arizona Game and Fish to hold tortoises, which have a lifespan of about 70 to 80 years, who are awaiting adoption.

Young explained that the walls of the enclosure will be built using the unique “super adobe” method which is not only sustainable, but more economically feasible. They will use layers of long tubes filled with a mixture of compacted sand and clay for the walls that will be plastered over to create curvy walls. He said that he got the idea when reading about the methods of architect Nader Khalili who originally presented the concept to NASA for building habitats on the moon and Mars.

“I wanted to highlight this building technique because it’s being used as a building technique for homes and larger structures, mostly in Third World countries, but it has a very low environmental impact, low cost of materials, and it’s earthquake resistant and tornado resistant and fire resistant – you end up with a very strong structure.”

When the project is completed, Young explained that they hope to have also included a shaded space, a water feature, walkways and educational displays for visitors. There are also plans to have tortoise-friendly plants and flowers in the pens while surrounding the shelter with native plants that will attract a wide variety of birds, insects and other wildlife.

“It’s meant to be a community place,” he said. “We’re trying to build something that will be lasting and aesthetically pleasing.”

While college students from environmental and biology classes will be involved in the planning and implementation of the project and taking care of it during holidays and breaks, Young said that they plan to have involvement from other areas of the campus as well. He said that they will be allowing art students to use the 150-foot long walls of the enclosure as a canvas and also asking English students to help them with writing educational displays. In all, he said he’s hoping to have at least 50 students involved in the project along with staff and community volunteers.

Young can be contacted directly for those interested in volunteering to help with the project or donate cuttings or seeds of native plants.

“Anything native to the Sonoran Desert or really Arizona in general, we’d be happy to incorporate it,” he said.