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New Species: Desert Tortoise Has Third Species In Mexico, Say Researchers

Feb 12, 2016 10:23 AM EST
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Desert tortoises of Mexico appear to be highly diverse, but have for years remained incorrectly grouped as only two individual species -- until now. Researchers from the University of Arizona have finally collected enough data to confirm a third sister exists among the seemingly identical, but slightly unique, tortoises. 

The desert tortoises were originally found in 1945, distributed over a large area stretching from the Mojave and Colorado deserts in the U.S. to mainland Mexico, according to a news release. At the time scientists noticed some individuals were very different from others, especially southern individuals that stand out with their significantly shorter tails and flatter shells. But due to the lack of sampling, and therefore research, the animals' individuality remained shadowed. 

Over the last six years, however, Dr. Taylor Edwards and his team gave the tortoises some much-needed special attention. Researchers measured numerous tortoises collected during trips to Sonora and northern Sinaloa in Mexico. As a result they identified a number of differences regarding the tortoises' habitat preference and physical characteristics, along with an entirely new species. 

The new species, subsequently dubbed Gopherus evgoodei, is named after Eric V. Goode, who was a conservationist, naturalist, and founder of the Turtle Conservancy. Unlike its sister species, whose shells are medium to dark brown with greenish hues, while the bodies are dark gray to brownish-gray, the new tortoise is dark tan to medium-brownish with an orange cast, researchers say. 

Of all three species, the new individual occupies the smallest geographic range, limited exclusively to thornscrub and tropical broadleaf forests, which in total spans no more than 24,000 square kilometers. Such an isolated range may threaten the species' survival. 

While not much is known about the animals' behavior, researchers suggest they are largely influenced by the region's monsoonal rains and the vegetation growth. For instance, biologists have found adults begin their seasonal activity in June, shortly before plant growth and the monsoons. Then, in December, they seek shelter underground in their dens, where they wait out the dry and cool winter season.

Their study, recently published in the journal ZooKeyshighlights the area's unrecognized biodiversity and ways in which conservationists can protect the tortoises in their natural habitat. 

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