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UBCO professor helps discover new species of giant tortoise

A UBC Okanagan professor was part of an international research team that discovered a new species of giant tortoise on an island in the Galapagos Archipelago. The new species, now called the Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise, is so physically similar to its cousin that it took genetic testing to identify it as distinct from the Western Santa Cruz tortoise.
Image Credit: James P. Gibbs
October 26, 2015 - 10:35 AM

KELOWNA – A UBC Okanagan professor was part of an international research team that discovered a new species of giant tortoise on an island in the Galapagos Archipelago.

The new species, now called the Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise, is so physically similar to its cousin that it took genetic testing to identify it as distinct from the Western Santa Cruz tortoise.

UBCO associate professor Michael Russello was part of a group researching tortoises on Santa Cruz Island. The team was led by Yale University’s Adalgisa Caccone, who says in a media release, the naming of the new species will help protect and restore its population, which are estimated to be in the hundreds.

“Its low numbers, limited geographic range, and reduced genetic diversity make it vulnerable. As a newly recognized species, it will now receive the attention needed to ensure its survival,” Caccone says.

The new species lives in a small area one-tenth the size of the island. It’s scientific name, Chelonoidis donfaustoi, is in honour of longtime Galapagos National Park ranger Fauso Llerena Sanches, who spent decades breeding endangered tortoises.

Russello, who first began working on the project as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, now heads the Ecological and Conservation Genomics Laboratory at the Kelowna campus. The findings were published Oct. 21, in the journal PLOS ONE.

“We initially reported cryptic species diversity in the giant Galápagos tortoises of Santa Cruz Island back in 2005,” he says. “The paper that came out this week formally describes the new species on this island, which will have important implications for conservation.” 

The research team will continue to explore patterns of variation in Galápagos tortoises as well as ways to manage their conservation.  

Linda Cayot, science advisor for Galápagos Conservancy calls this an exciting moment in the history of Galapagos giant tortoises.

“Over the last several years, the ever-growing role of genetics in guiding development of conservation strategies for Galápagos tortoises continually requires us to think in new ways,” she says.

 To contact the reporter for this story, email Adam Proskiw at aproskiw@infonews.ca or call 250-718-0428. To contact the editor, email mjones@infonews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015
InfoTel News Ltd

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