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Third Species of Desert Tortoise Identified by UA Geneticist

Third Species of Desert Tortoise Identified by UA Geneticist

A University of Arizona genetic researcher has identified a new species of desert tortoise. Recognizing the Goode’s Thornscrub Tortoise (Gopherus evgoodei) as a separate animal will aid in its preservation.

Taylor Edwards, a UA geneticist and conservationist, has studied desert tortoises for more than 15 years. Since he first obtained genetic data on this animal, it took 10 years of work to determine it is a separate species from the other two desert tortoise species, Mohave Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) found in California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Arizona, and the Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) found in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

The Goode’s Thornscrub is yellow-orange and its shell is flatter and more square than the other species. Its habitat is the tropical deciduous forests of southern Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico, Edwards said.

“It has the smallest range of any of the desert tortoises. And it does live in habitat that’s considered pretty imperiled,” Edwards said.

Edwards looked at DNA from among his collection of 1,600 samples he and other researchers have collected for identification and disease analysis.

“There are only about 50 or so species of tortoises in the world, so naming one is a unique opportunity,” he said.

Knowing that this creature is a separate species will help conservation biologists protect the animals.

“What’s important now is starting to monitor and find out actually how many there are out there and what their needs are in order to persist,” he said.

Researchers will look at what the tortoises eat, how social they are, what their reproductive cycle is like and how far south their range is.

The new species is named for Eric Goode, founder of the Turtle Conservancy. Naming rights were auctioned and the money will be used to buy tortoise habitat in Mexico.

The Arizona Science Desk is a collaboration of public broadcasting entities in the state, including Arizona Public Media.