Mojave Max


Many Americans are familiar with Punxsutawney Phil, the prognosticating groundhog of Pennsylvania, and a slew of other weather-predicting rodents, including Buckeye Chuck, Wiarton Willie, Dunkirk Dave, and Staten Island Chuck.

We rouse these groundhogs from hibernation on February 2 for the purpose of telling us the future of the struggle between winter and spring. If the sun slings a shadow from the critter, we have six more weeks of winter; if cloudy weather prevents the shadow, spring is right around the corner. This year – 2023 – Phil spied a shadow and confidently avered that winter would remain for a month and a fortnight longer.

Then, many parts of the country experienced the earliest spring in recent memory. Here at TMAC HQ in Ohio, near Punxsutawney, and in much of the southern and eastern United States, spring leaves bloomed in excess of 20 days ahead of historical averages. These sorts of misses prompt some discerning fans to doubt Punxsutawney Phil’s powers, as if he’s actually more akin to guessing the sex of an unborn child, the purveyor of a tossed coin. We can’t all be imperious weather seers.

Punxsutawney Phil - photo by Chris Flook
Visualization of leaf blooms in 2023 versus historical averages - National Phenology Network

But there’s another critter out there who peddles seasonal clairvoyance and is never wrong. His name is Mojave Max.

Before we introduce Max, let’s parse some data that will preface his tale.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, March 2023 was the second-warmest March on record. The USA National Phenology Network tracks the dates of leaf sprouts across the country (phenology is the study of seasonal change). The emergence of plants during spring responds to heat. If the daily average temperature rises above freezing, it’s a signal to plants to begin blooming. An abnormally warm March points to an abnormally early bloom.

Check the map above. All the areas in red had first leaves approximately three weeks earlier than usual. But, as is the case in this period of changing climate, you’ll also see a lot of blue on this graphic. The western portions of the United States experienced the opposite. While the eastern half experienced a mild winter, the west was as cold and as wet as can be. These conditions led to a late bloom in this part of the world.

Which brings us to Mojave Max, the desert tortoise of Las Vegas.

Mojave Max - photo from

Gopherus agassizii is a critically threatened species of tortoise that inhabits the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts of the United States and Mexico. This species is the official state reptile of California and Nevada. These 10-to-14-inch tortoises can live to be 80 years old. They spend upwards of 95% of their lives in burrows, which allows them to populate desert terrain that can exceed 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and below-freezing temperatures in the winter.

Reptiles don’t hibernate; instead, they brumate. Though both processes involve becoming dormant during the winter, the metabolic processes differ. Shorter days and colder temperatures trigger brumation. Though reptiles might gorge on a slightly bigger amount of food before brumation, they do not go all out like mammals. During the winter, they still need to wake up to drink water.

For desert tortoises, brumation means they remain in burrows until the temperature is warm enough to resume normal metabolism. This evolutionary adaptation, coupled with the lack of humans ripping them from their slumber early, gives Mojave Max a distinct advantage over Punxsutawney Phil. Mojave Max can’t be wrong. When he emerges from his burrow is the beginning of spring in the desert.

Max is the official mascot for the Clark County Desert Conservation Program. Clark County is home to Las Vegas. Since 1995, they have used Max to teach students and the public about native species and ways they can protect the local environment. He lives at Springs Preserve, where the Desert Conservation Program monitors his emergence dates each year.

They run a contest for students to predict the dates and deem the emergence day as the unofficial beginning of spring in Southern Nevada.

This year, Mojave Max appeared on April 24, which marked the latest date since the organization started monitoring a tortoise in 2000.  This point on the calendar broke the 2012 record by a full week. The earliest materialization transpired in 2005 on February 14.

In reality, three different tortoises have represented the Max moniker. This fact isn’t unique. Though Punxsutawney lore claims the same groundhog has lived since 1886, groundhogs tend to live for about three years. With a life expectancy between 50 and 80 years for the desert tortoise, what exactly happened to the previous versions of Mojave Max is unclear.

However, unlike Phil, Max doesn’t need to rely on shadows and has never missed a call on spring.

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