Thanks to new genetic studies, scientists have discovered a new species of giant tortoises living in the Galapagos Islands. A group of around 250 giant tortoises have been identified as genetically distinct from other species of the slow-move reptiles that reside in the Pacific islands.
The new species lives in a 15-square-mile (or 40-square kilometer) area of Santa Cruz Island. On Wednesday, scientists reported that the species is as genetically different from tortoises on the island as tortoises from other islands are.
The new Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise, scientific name Chelonoidis donfaustoi, has been differentiated from the larger population of 2,000 tortoises, scientific name Chelonoidis porteri, who reside only 6 miles (10 kilometers) away, on the west side of the island. Tortoises on the island had been thought to be all of the same species until this recent discovery.
Interestingly enough, the Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise’s closest relative is not the tortoises residing on the same island, but the tortoise residing on the neighboring island of San Cristobal, according to Yale evolutionary biologist Adalgisa Caccone.
Two types of genetic data were used to differentiate the two species of Santa Cruz tortoises. The new discovery now brings the total number of unique Galapagos giant tortoise species up to 15.
In addition to genetic differences, the two Santa Cruz tortoise species also differ in regards to the shell. The newly discovered Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise has a more compressed shell shape, according to Caccone. This may have resulted from the tortoise inhabiting the drier part of the island.
The giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands are famous for being studied by British naturalist Charles Darwin. They are said to have inspired Darwin and certainly contributed to his theory of evolution via natural selection.
The Galapagos Islands are one of only two locations where giant tortoises can be found, the other being Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean. These impressive creatures graze on the islands’ grasses, leaves, cacti and fruits, but can survive up to a year without any food or water.
The giant tortoise is an endangered species that is greatly affected by pollution of the oceans and has been over hunted by hungry sailors, oblivious to the dangerously low levels of their populations.