By April Garbuz, Wilton High School
A desert tortoise from the United States Southwest and northwestern Mexico has been described as a new species. This discovery by researchers (Robert W. Murphy, Kristin H. Berry, Taylor Edwards, Alan E. Leviton, Amy Lathrop, and J. Daren Riedle) answered questions that have been asked for over a century.
In 1861, James Graham Cooper named a new species of tortoise found in the California deserts the Agassiz Land Tortoise. But his findings were confusing and some were skeptical about his analysis. So at some point, people inexplicably started referring to the Agassiz Land Tortoise as the Desert Tortoise. But it turns out, that for 150 years, the Agassiz Land (Desert) Tortoise had been cloaking the existence of two species.
The research crew obtained DNA data from the original 150-year-old tortoise specimen and compared it to the recently described species from the Baja California peninsula. The forensic genetics research found that the tortoise formerly known as the Agassiz Land Tortoise was actually from Baja California, and not Arizona as some had previously thought. The discovery that the species was from Baja California, and not Sonora, Mexico, meant that the population in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico represented an unnamed species that had gone without identity for over a century.
The new species, Gopherus morafkai, has been named for the late Professor David J. Morafka, a distinguished herpetologist. The existing species was deemed threatened due to urban expansion and habitat destruction. This description of the new species may lead to further protection of the habitats, however, investigation of the topic is still ongoing.