Dermal bone biopsies were collected from the periphery of the carapaces of adult desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) from grazed and ungrazed habitats near the Arizona/Utah border (USA). Quantitative bone histomorphometry was performed on these biopsies as well as on dermal bone biopsies collected from captive juvenile desert tortoises. Except for mild osteomalacia, carapaces of adult desert tortoises from the grazed habitat were relatively normal. No signs of osteopenia were observed. Based on the low numbers of osteoblasts and osteoclasts in dermal bone of both populations of adult desert tortoises, it appears that the peripheral carapace is relatively inert with very low levels of dermal bone turnover. Bone cells and osteoid were more common in dermal bone biopsies from the carapace and plastron of captive juvenile desert tortoises than in adult desert tortoises. However, the great variability in the incidence of bone cells among individuals and the difficulty in collecting juvenile desert tortoises in the field limit the usefulness of dermal bone biopsies from animals of this age group. Based on these results, we propose that dermal bone of the peripheral carapace is a poor sample site for evaluating the effects of dietary or environmental conditions on calcified tissues in desert tortoises.

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