New Lab Coordinator for Tortoises

Posted at 10:28 am April 1, 2010 by Larisa Gokool

Larisa holds a juvenile desert tortoise.

It was 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-12.7 degrees Celsius) when I boarded the plane that would deliver me from Boston to Las Vegas to become the San Diego Zoo’s newest research associate at its Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC). I boarded the plane wearing a heavy down-filled jacket, a wool scarf, insulating gloves, and calf-length suede boots; let me tell you, I was down to a T-shirt by the time I got outside McCarran airport!

Being born and raised in coastal Massachusetts where the ocean is a short drive away, every yard has a green lawn, and winter means temperatures below freezing, Las Vegas gave me quite the culture shock. In Massachusetts, we consider 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1.1 degrees Celsius) to be a nice day in the winter! I found it fascinating to be in the desert in February with no snow on the ground, and I found the colors of the desert against the cloud-free sky to be really refreshing.

From blizzard to bliss in one day!

Larisa is now at home at the DTCC.

At the DTCC, my job is organizing the lab so that when tortoises come in via the hotline (see post Desert Tortoise Hotline) or we bring them in from the site to inventory, we have all the supplies necessary to process tortoises as quickly and smoothly as possible so as not to cause the tortoises any undue stress. We check the tortoises for injuries and symptoms of illness, such as upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma agassizii.

Processing tortoises consists of assigning an ID number to each tortoise; taking blood, oral, and nasal samples; and checking the tortoise’s shell and inner cavities for any abnormalities that may need special attention. After the health assessments are complete, the tortoises are given water and food and are placed in overnight holding before being moved to a quarantine pen with a man-made burrow.

Along with being responsible for the lab, I am also responsible for our newly arrived necropsy trailer. The necropsy trailer is a great asset for the DTCC because now, when a tortoise dies, we have an organized, isolated area where we can examine the body and learn what caused the animal’s death. We can then use that knowledge to better care for the live tortoises in the future.

Although I am far from home in a region of the country that is completely new to me, I am glad to have made this journey, because I am now part of the important task of helping to save a threatened species. When you go to college and imagine doing something important with your degree and with your life, being in Las Vegas working at the DTCC with these incredible animals has proven to be just that for me.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

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5 Responses to “New Lab Coordinator for Tortoises”

  1. Patricia says:

    Wow, what a change you have gone through! Good luck!

    Patricia, aka Lover of the San Diego Zoo

  2. Jess says:

    For the tortoises! 🙂

  3. Jean Collins says:


    I am a dear friend of your family and love finding out what you are doing.

    Please keep me posted.

    Your work sounds interesting and important.

    I will forward it to my niece who is just starting college and career path.

    Blessings on Holy Week

    Jean Collins

  4. Diana S. says:

    What a change for you, Larissa!! I hope that you are finding the DTCC to be a rewarding experience. It sure sounds like you will be a valuable asset to them!

  5. Larisa says:

    Thanks everyone for all the well wishes!