A Portable X-ray Machine for Tortoises

An x-ray of a desert tortoise shows three eggs and one urolith or bladder stone.

An x-ray of a desert tortoise shows one urolith or bladder stone, on the right, and three eggs.

I have written a few times about uroliths (bladder stones) and what we are doing here at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas to help the tortoises that have them. Uroliths form when mineral wastes in the urine crystallize and stick together to form a large mass. In tortoises, this is primarily due to improper nutrition and dehydration. During routine health assessments, we palpate tortoises to see if we feel a mass. If so, we add that tortoise’s id number to an ongoing list of tortoises that need x-rays. Palpated masses are usually one of two things: eggs (in females) or uroliths (either sex). We then San Diego Zoo to take the x-rays here. This took a lot of planning and was expensive.

We were very excited this spring when our field research team was given a grant that allowed us to purchase our own portable x-ray machine! This was to be used by the field crew and our medical staff to take x-rays on site and in the field. Our friends at the local U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) office generously allowed us to use their scanner to develop our x-rays. Not only did this make it easier and more convenient for us to x-ray tortoises on site, but it also allowed our research team members to broaden the scope of their field research.

Jeanette Perry takes x-rays at our field site in Trout Canyon, Nevada.

Jeanette Perry takes x-rays at our field site in Trout Canyon, Nevada.

In addition to loaning us some of their equipment, USGS also trained two of us to use the machine properly and safely. Since getting the machine, we’ve been able to x-ray at least 100 tortoises for eggs and uroliths before being translocated. Luckily, many of them did not have uroliths and were eligible for translocation.

Rachel Foster is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Tortoise: ‘Tis the Season for Hibernation.

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