Say hello to Chelonoidis donfaustoi, a new tortoise species discovered on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz.

Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise _2015_10_22
The Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise (Chelonoidis donfaustoi). Image: Washington Tapia

A research team led by scientists from Yale University identified the new reptile as a separate species after some genetic sleuthing on neighbouring populations of giant tortoises on the island.

With just a few slight differences in the shells, the groups appeared as simply variations within the same species, but a closer look proved otherwise.

The team found that a few hundred of the animals living on the island's eastern side are genetically distinct from a larger population living less than ten kilometres away, earning them the new title of Eastern Santa Cruz tortoise. Its scientific name is a nod to a retired Galapagos park ranger.

According to Adalgisa “Gisella” Caccone, one of the authors of a new paper detailing the discovery, the larger tortoise population (numbering around 2,000) is safely ensconced within a national park – but their eastern neighbours don't enjoy the same level of protection. 

“Naming a new species elevates its status and enables more resources to be devoted to protecting its range,” Caccone says.

Supersized and long-living, giant tortoises are among the most famous residents of the Galapagos archipelago, the island chain that inspired Charles Darwin. Sadly, the unique reptiles have suffered dramatic declines over the past 200 years as a result of overexploitation by humans and the introduction of invasive species to their island homes.

The family lost three species long ago, and a fourth species lost its last representative, the famous Lonesome George, in 2012. 


Top header image: Wildlife Travel, Flickr