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New Giant Tortoise Found On the Galapagos Islands; Better Conservation Called For, Researchers Say

Oct 22, 2015 02:16 PM EDT

Santa Cruz, in the center of the Galapagos Archipelago, is home to a second, genetically unique species of giant tortoises, say researchers who have named the newcomer the Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise (Chelonoidis donfaustoi). This represents the 15th known species of giant tortoises living in the archipelago, according to a news release, and it was partially named after Galapagos National Park ranger Don Fausto, who dedicated 43 years to the conservation and breeding of giant tortoises.  

"This is a small and isolated group of tortoises that never attracted much attention from biologists previously," Dr. James Gibbs, a team member and conservation biologist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said in the release. "But we now know that they are as distinct as any species of tortoise in the archipelago. Their discovery and formal description will help these tortoises receive the scientific and management attention they need to fully recover."

Currently there are two populations of giant tortoises living on the island of Santa Cruz. Previously, researchers had assumed that these populations belonged to the same species. However, a recent Yale University genetic and morphological analysis proved the two populations were separate species. Researchers also pointed out that Chelonoidis donfaustoi's shell is less dome-like, compared to their island relatives. In recent years, Giant tortoise populations have become increasingly threatened by human exploitation, non native species and habitat loss.  

The larger of the two populations, the Western Santa Cruz Tortoise (Chelonoidis porteri), lives along the west side of the island in an area known as the "Reserve." While the newly discovered Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoises live along the lower eastern slopes around a hill named "Cerro Fatal," researchers explained

The new study will help the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative better understand the species that live within the Galapagos Archipelago, so that they can better protect and restore the animals and their natural habitats. Special emphasis will be placed on the Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise. 

Findings were recently published in the journal PLOS ONE

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