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New Galapagos giant tortoise crawls into science spotlight

Researchers are surprised to discover a group of giant tortoises on a Galapagos island are a completely separate species.

An Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise munches on greens. Washington Tapia

The Galapagos Islands take up over 17,000 square miles (45,000 square kilometers) of space, so you can see how researchers may have overlooked some genetic details on a few giant tortoises in the underbrush.

The islands are known for being one of the Earth's most unique nature preserves. English naturalist Charles Darwin famously studied critters there, which played into his theory of evolution.

One of the more distinctive lifeforms found in Galapagos are the giant tortoises, which can grow to weigh up to 550 pounds (250 kilograms). A team of scientists from Yale just made the unexpected discovery that a few hundred of these tortoises on Santa Cruz Island are actually a separate species from a larger, nearby population of the slow-moving reptiles.

Researchers had noticed subtle variations in the shells of the tortoises, but it took a genetic analysis to figure out the species difference. Yale News notes that they are "in fact as genetically distinct as species living on different islands."

The newly discovered branch of the family is now named the Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise. The Latin name is Chelonoidis donfaustoi, named for Fausto Llerena Sánchez, a Galapagos National Park ranger known as "Don Fausto." Don Fausto spent 43 years working on tortoise conservation efforts, which made him a perfect candidate for the honor.

"He devoted his life to saving many critically endangered tortoises through captive breeding. It isn't easy to breed tortoises in captivity," says James Gibbs, a conservation biologist with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

The Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise population consists of just a few hundred animals, which could make them a prime focus of conservation efforts. Their kin on the western side of the island numbers around 2,000.

The research findings on the species were published in the journal PLOS-ONE on October 21.