LAS VEGAS – A desert tortoise that is the focus of schoolchild predictions and local lore about the start of spring has emerged from its winter burrow at a nature preserve in Las Vegas, officials said Tuesday.
Mojave Max's appearance above ground with a burrow-mate at 3:40 p.m. Monday at the Springs Preserve marked the latest date since an annual watch contest began in 2000 for the critter compared locally with Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. Phil's handlers said Feb. 2 that their groundhog predicted their spring wouldn't arrive until April.
In Las Vegas, where the threatened species' reptilian winter rest is called brumation, the earliest a Mojave Max has emerged since 2000 was a little before noon on Feb. 14, 2005. The latest had been April 17, 2012.
Three male tortoises have borne the moniker Mojave Max. Today's Max is marked with a radio transmitting device attached to his shell. The tortoise seen with Mojave Max on Monday does not have a name.
Biologists at the Springs Preserve think this year's exceptionally cold winter that brought frequent rain and abundant snow to mountains in the West also kept the desert surface cool later into the spring, preserve spokesman Tom Bradley Jr. said Tuesday.
“It's taken longer for the soil in the burrow to warm,” Bradley said. “Once it finally warmed up, Max came out.”
The desert tortoise is considered a keystone species and an indicator of the health of a fragile desert ecosystem.
The habits and habitat of Mojave Max are studied by children at Clark County public and private schools, where officials say more than 4,200 students in grades K-5 entered this year's contest to guess the day the tortoise would emerge. Officials said a winner of the 23rd annual contest will be announced soon.